Swamiji’s message at the Parliament of Religions – its implications

What were the implications of Swami Vivekananda’s historic speeches at Chicago Parliament of Religions?

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Introduction:

Swami Vivekananda became world-renowned almost overnight on 11th Sept 1893. He spoke for a few minutes at the inaugural session of the Parliament of World Religions at Chicago. His reply to the welcome catapulted him to instant world-recognition. We ask why? What did that address contain? What was the content of his speech? Was the content of his speech responsible for his fame?

The reason for raising this issue is two-fold.

One, it has been seen recently that there is an upsurge in Hindu religion, especially in the form of Hindutva. This new form of Hinduism claims to be the custodian of the entire Religion of Hinduism. And more importantly, they quote Swami Vivekananda extensively, albeit very selectively, and in many cases, out of context. Many people, both within India and in the rest of the world as well, are confused about this development. A mega event was organized recently at Westin Hotel in Chicago by the World Hindu Foundation, the global wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).[1] The entire event, which was highly publicized, was purportedly organized to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Swamiji’s Chicago lectures. The rabble-rousing that followed was covered by most important news channels. One of the important speakers went on record calling all non-Hindus living in India as dogs![2] So, is such the content of this great monk’s lectures in Chicago, 125 years ago? The organizers of the WHF are very clear that they derive Hindutva, or their version of rejuvenated Hinduism, directly from the message of Swami Vivekananda. Recently, we saw a Govt approved textbook in Maharashtra mentioning that Swami Vivekananda wanted us to show the killer instinct towards people of other faiths![3] While the Swamiji’s Chicago lectures are famous for proclaiming to the world the message of Harmony of Religions, the Hindutva movement claims the same Swamiji’s message to be the fount of their version of Hinduism. The cognitive dissonance of these two developments is not lost on most people. We need to clarify these developments.

Two, what exactly are the implications of the message given by Swamiji through his Chicago lectures? This question assumes importance because 125 years after Swamiji delivered the life-giving message of Harmony of Religions at Chicago, have the different religions of the world become harmonious with one another? If not, what indeed is the impact of those lectures?

The actual event:

On 11th September 1893, Swami Vivekananda spoke at the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago. It was a brief speech, actually a formal response to the welcome accorded to him and other speakers. It was not even a detailed, scholarly exposition of Hinduism. It was extempore. Yet, it was that short speech that catapulted this unknown Hindu monk into world renown, literally overnight! We know that he had addressed his audience as ‘Sisters & brothers of America’.

The gist of his opening speech[4] was as follows:

He thanked the organizers and the audience in the name of the most ancient Order of monks in the world, in the name of the mother of all religions of the world, and in the name of the millions & millions of the Hindu people of all classes and sects. He informed the gathered audience that he would be speaking the next few days about a religion that had taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. He proclaimed that he was proud to belong to a nation that had sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the world. He told the audience that he and his Hindu people believed that just as all the rivers having different sources of origin, mingle in the same water of the sea, so all religions in spite of the differences in their origin and methods lead to the same God. He ended by fervently hoping that the bells that tolled that morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism and of all persecutions by word or deed.

What actually happened?

It is recorded from multiple sources that the audience had gone into frenzy over this little speech. The audience of about 4000 people had risen to its feet and had clapped their hands in joy for full two minutes![5] What exactly was the reason for this kind of reception? Was it the content of the speech? As can be seen from the synopsis given above, the speech had no substantial content. He would, of course, be elaborating on those ideas in the days to come; but the reply to the welcome address had no such content worth applauding. Yet, these few words had done something deep inside the American psyche, and the next day, every major newspaper heralded the birth of a new prophet, so to speak.

Ida Ansell, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda notes in her diary[6]: “One day, he (Swami Vivekananda) said this startling thing to us: ‘In my first speech in this country, in Chicago, I addressed that audience as “Sisters and Brothers of America,” and you know that they all rose to their feet. You may wonder what made them do this, you may wonder if I had some strange power. Let me tell you that I did have a power and this is it – never once in my life did I allow myself to have even one sexual thought. I trained my mind, my thinking, and the powers that man usually uses along that line I put into a higher channel, and it developed a force so strong that nothing could resist it.’”

So, what actually led to the incredible reception by the American audience of Swamiji was this aspect of his personality. It was not just the content of his brief speech. We are not alluding that the content of his address was ordinary or commonplace. But, we need to get the facts right.

The world today remembers that Swamiji said something about the harmony of religions in that inaugural session and we all believe that the message was responsible for his unprecedented fame. The audience of that day, 11th Sept 1893, at the Columbus Hall of the Art Institute of Chicago, however, felt something totally different. We must try to imagine that moment, that situation, that presence. When this young man, dressed strangely, stood up to speak, the audience instinctively felt something. We do not have a word to describe that feeling. We use the word ‘holiness’ to designate all those feelings. Everyone in that Hall instinctively felt his immaculate purity of personality. The printed word available today does not convey that experience. Purity of character is what connects the speaker with his audience at the deepest level. It is not his words, nor the syntax of his lecture. It is the purity of his personality.

Sister Christine, another disciple of Swamiji, writes the following in her reminiscences[7]: When asked what preparation he (Swamiji) made for speaking, he told us none – but neither did he go unprepared. He said that usually before a lecture he heard a voice saying it all. The next day he repeated what he had heard. He did not say whose voice he heard. Whatever it was, it came as the expression of some great spiritual power, greater than his own normal power, released by the intensity of his concentration. This may have been quite unconscious. No written words can convey the vitality, the power, the majesty that came with his spoken words. What might happen to one’s ideas, values, personality, if this current of power were let loose upon them! It was great enough to move the world, let alone one little human personality, which was but as a straw upon its mighty current. It was force that could sweep everything before it. Old ideas would change, the purposes and aims of life, its values would change, old tendencies would be directed into a new channel, the entire personality would be transmuted.

What was it which emanated from him which all felt and none could explain? Was it the ojas of which he so often spoke, that mysterious power which comes when the physical forces of the body are transmuted into spiritual power? When this happens, man has at his command a power so great that it can move the world. Every word that he utters is charged. One who possesses it may say only a few sentences, but they will be potent until the end of time, while the orator who lacks it may ‘speak with the tongue of men and of angels’, but it is as nothing, ‘as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’

Something of this power is lost in the written word, as those know well who were fortunate enough to hear Vivekananda speak. The spiritual force generated at such times was so great that some in the audience were lifted above the normal state of consciousness, so that it was possible to remember only the beginning of a lecture. After a certain point, there seemed to be a blank. The normal mind was no longer functioning: a higher state of consciousness, beyond reason and memory, had taken its place. Long after, perhaps, it would be found that during that period when the mind seemed blank, a specially deep impression had been made.

This power that a mere human being can have over others is something that is not much understood. We are all in awe of such a person of power, but, this phenomenon has been not studied at all. Swamiji himself explained this amazing phenomenon to his disciples and Sister Christine notes the following in her reminiscences[8]: There is a connection between great spirituality and chastity. The explanation is that these men and women have through prayer and meditation transmuted the most powerful force in the body into spiritual energy. In India this is well understood and yogis do it consciously. The force so transmuted is called ojas and is stored up in the brain. It has been lifted from the lowest center of the kundalini — the muladhara to the highest. To us who listened the words came to our remembrance: ‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.’

In the same eager way he went on to explain that whenever there was any manifestation of power or genius, it was because a little of this power had escaped up the sushumna. And did he say it? Or did we come to see for ourselves the reason why the Avataras and even lesser ones could inspire a love so great that it made the fishermen of Galilee leave their nets and follow the young Carpenter, made the princes of the clan of Shakya give up their robes, their jewels, their princely estates? It was the divine drawing. It was the lure of divinity.

How touchingly earnest Swami Vivekananda was as he proposed this subject! He seemed to plead with us as if to beg us to act upon this teaching as something most precious. More, we could not be the disciples he required if we were not established in this. He demanded a conscious transmutation. “The man who had no temper has nothing to control,” he said. “I want a few, five or six who are in the flower of their youth.”

The perspective of the message:

In 1919, after Durga Puja, Swami Keshavananda came to Jayrambati from Koalpara to pay his respects to Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi. In course of their conversation, Keshavananda asked her, “Mother, was it for the establishment of the harmony of religions that the Master came this time?” Holy Mother replied, “Look, my son, it never occurred to me that the Master practiced all religions with the intention of preaching the harmony of religions. He was always absorbed in God-consciousness. The way the Christians, Muslims, and the Vaishnavas practice spiritual disciplines and realize God, the Master also practiced those paths in the same way, and thus he enjoyed the divine play of God in various ways. He was completely oblivious of how days and nights would pass. But you see, my son, in this present age he set the ideal of renunciation. How many people recognize him as God? People were attracted to his renunciation. Only a few in his inner circle realize him as God. Has anyone ever witnessed such natural renunciation? What you have mentioned about the harmony of religions is also true. In every incarnation, a particular ideal is emphasized and other ideals remain dormant.[9]

We quote this amazing conversation between Swami Keshavananda and Holy Mother because the popular perception is that Harmony of Religions is the central message of Swami Vivekananda, and hence of his Guru Sri Ramakrishna, to the modern world. In fact, the Chicago addresses are synonymous with that message of harmony. This conversation lends the right perspective to this perception.

Holy Mother’s words are very deep. She says that Sri Ramakrishna’s central message was God realization. Renunciation alone leads to God realization. The impulse for realizing as many aspects of God as possible was unique in Sri Ramakrishna. All spiritual aspirants of the past, be they ordinary souls or Prophets and Incarnations, were satisfied with realizing one particular aspect of God. God however is infinite. Hence God has infinite aspects. In Sri Ramakrishna we see a unique, never-before-seen, urge of realizing as many aspects of infinite God as possible. It is this urge that blossoms out as the wonderful ideal of ‘Harmony of Religions’. So, we must understand one thing very clearly. Holy Mother confirms that the ideal of Harmony of Religions is indeed a special message for this age revealed by Sri Ramakrishna. However, this ideal has no meaning if we see religion as anything other than realization. If religion means realization of the spiritual ideal, only then does harmony of religions make any sense. Therefore does Holy Mother emphasize that Sri Ramakrishna’s central message to us was renunciation, which means realization of the spiritual ideal. Harmony of Religions is, no doubt, an important message of Sri Ramakrishna to us, but only in the backdrop of this ideal of renunciation.

It is important to note this point. If we do not understand this vital point, we may misunderstand Harmony of Religions to mean some kind of political idea. “Tyagenaike amritatvamaanashuhu”; Renunciation is the sole criteria for spiritual realization. Once a person realizes his true nature, he must be guided to the fact of harmony among all religious ideals. The idea of Harmony of Religions divorced from the idea of realization of one’s true nature is dangerous, and it will end up as just another political idea. This kind of development is happening and hence we felt the need of highlighting this point as a necessary course-correction. In fact, this kind of misunderstanding had happened during Swamiji’s lifetime itself. He himself suggested the correct perspective of his statements in a letter to his Madras disciple Alasinga Perumal[10]. Writing from USA on 27th September, 1894 (a year after the historic Chicago addresses), Swamiji says, “Dear Alasinga, . . . One thing I find in the books of my speeches and sayings published in Calcutta. Some of them are printed in such a way as to savor of political views; whereas I am no politician or political agitator. I care only for the Spirit — when that is right everything will be righted by itself…. So you must warn the Calcutta people that no political significance be ever attached falsely to any of my writings or sayings. What nonsense! . . . I heard that Rev. Kali Charan Banerji in a lecture to Christian missionaries said that I was a political delegate. If it was said publicly, then publicly ask the Babu for me to write to any of the Calcutta papers and prove it, or else take back his foolish assertion. This is their trick! I have said a few harsh words in honest criticism of Christian governments in general, but that does not mean that I care for, or have any connection with politics or that sort of thing. Those who think it very grand to print extracts from those lectures and want to prove that I am a political preacher, to them I say, ‘Save me from my friends.’ . . . Tell my friends that a uniform silence is all my answer to my detractors. If I give them tit for tat, it would bring us down to a level with them. Tell them that truth will take care of itself, and that they are not to fight anybody for me. They have much to learn yet, and they are only children. They are still full of foolish golden dreams — mere boys![11]

Analysis of Swamiji’s message:

Now, let us analyze the message that Swamiji conveyed to the American audience during his lectures at the Parliament of Religions.

Dissociating the essential Hinduism from its non-essentials:

Swamiji actually proclaimed a fundamental fact of religion in the Parliament[12]. All religions exhibit this fundamental characteristic. What is that? All religions have two distinct aspects to it. One is the personal aspect of religion; the other is the collective aspect of religion.

In his lecture ‘Buddhism, the fulfilment of Hinduism’[13] delivered on 26th September, 1893, Swami Vivekananda says, “The religion of the Hindus is divided into two parts: the ceremonial and the spiritual. The spiritual portion is specially studied by the monks. In that there is no caste. A man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India, and the two castes become equal. In religion there is no caste; caste is simply a social institution.” Followers of every religion make the mistake of conflating both these aspects into one. The problem in Hinduism is all the more virulent. The problems generated by the collective aspect of Hinduism get ploughed back into the entire religion and people end up concluding that the entire Hindu religion is outdated and has to be rejected.

In a letter to Alasinga[14] written on 2nd Nov 1893, Swamiji says: “The Hindu must not give up his religion, but must keep religion within its proper limits and give freedom to society to grow. All the reformers in India made the serious mistake of holding religion accountable for all the horrors of priestcraft and degeneration and went forthwith to pull down the indestructible structure, and what was the result? Failure! Beginning from Buddha down to Ram Mohan Roy, everyone made the mistake of holding caste to be a religious institution and tried to pull down religion and caste all together, and failed. But in spite of all the ravings of the priests, caste is simply a crystallized social institution, which after doing its service is now filling the atmosphere of India with its stench, and it can only be removed by giving back to the people their lost social individuality. Every man born here knows that he is a man. Every man born in India knows that he is a slave of society. Now, freedom is the only condition of growth; take that off, the result is degeneration. With the introduction of modern competition, see how caste is disappearing fast! No religion is now necessary to kill it. The Brahmana shopkeeper, shoemaker, and wine-distiller are common in Northern India. And why? Because of competition. No man is prohibited from doing anything he pleases for his livelihood under the present Government, and the result is neck and neck competition, and thus thousands are seeking and finding the highest level they were born for, instead of vegetating at the bottom.

Note the words, “The Hindu must not give up his religion, but must keep religion within its proper limits and give freedom to society to grow.” What does keeping the Hindu Religion within its proper limits mean? Who will prescribe that limit? And what is the connection between allowing our society the freedom to grow and keeping our religion within proper limits? We all need to urgently think on these questions.

Do not try to merge the personal, individual aspect of religion with the collective aspect of religion. If we can do that with respect to Hinduism, we would have kept the Hindu religion within its proper limits. Religious leaders in India have always taken the liberty of prescribing upon the masses the kind of social life they need to live so that all of them can gradually come up to experience spiritual truth. These prescriptions for social life made by religion were valid for quite a long period of time in India. These social laws (which were crystallized into the institution called Caste) helped millions of common people to grow materially, intellectually, morally and spiritually for a long time. These social laws helped the Hindus to meaningfully interact with people who were not Hindus for a long time, since these laws had provisions for incorporating willing foreigners into the body politick as we saw with the Greeks or Yavanas, the Huns, the Tartars and the Kushanas. The system however broke down with the Muslim invasion during the 11th century. Hordes of Muslims came into our country with the idea of staying here. But the Hindu society could not integrate them into its body politick. This was a major setback for the Hindu society.

Didn’t the Hindu society face such situations before? A situation where a foreign group of people entered India and wanted to stay in India but would not integrate socially with the Hindus? We do not know the historic facts. But, we can safely infer two possible scenarios. One: Such people did come; but they were militarily evicted from the land by a powerful military force which has always been a part of the Hindu society, sanctioned by the social laws prescribed by the Hindu Religious leaders; that powerful military force formed the Kshatriya caste. Two: Some fringe groups did remain totally unintegrated with the body politick, obviously in very minute pockets, but they were categorized as ‘Mlechha’ and socially, there was mutual non-interference. Mlechha was the category of people living in the Indian society that could not integrate into it. Thus, Mlechha was beyond the pale of the social structure called Caste system. It is interesting to note that Swamiji once said, “No man, no nation, my son, can hate others and live; India’s doom was sealed the very day they invented the word MLECHCHHA and stopped from communion with others. Take care how you foster that idea.[15]

With the Muslim invasion, the Hindu society faced its greatest challenge. Here was a substantial group of foreigners who wished to stay in the land, refused to socially integrate, and over and above that, forced their social norms over the Hindu society. Never before had the Hindus faced a social challenge of this magnitude or intensity.

The reaction of the Hindu society was equally shocking to its leaders. Millions of Hindus belonging to the lowest caste, the Shudras, adopted the Muslim social norms. Conversion means just that; accepting the social norms of another religion. It is only the collective aspect of a religion that converts. The personal aspect of any religion cannot convert. But, the two aspects are so closely mixed up together that one leads to the other. With the Muslim invasion too, if the social norms had been imposed on the Hindu society and even if large masses of Hindus had indeed ended up adopting the Muslim social norms, it should not have been a crisis. But, adopting the Muslim social norms effectively meant that the Hindu would cease to be a Hindu in his personal life too; he would have to follow the personal aspect of the Muslim religion, eschewing the personal aspect of Hinduism!

The Hindu psyche learnt two major lessons from the Muslim invasion over a period of 800 years.

One: It had to develop its Kshatriya caste which had been destroyed by the Buddhist influence. Hindus realized that they had to develop sufficient strength in order to protect themselves. This was indeed a vital learning and was powerful enough to have rejuvenated the Hindu society long ago. But, this lesson was accompanied by another very important learning

Two: The developments following the Muslim invasion revealed major chinks in the Caste system. Even if we developed a strong military arm of Hinduism, what would it protect? A flawed system, which had so deeply hurt its members, that millions willingly jumped camp? It was this inner conflict in the Hindu psyche that had almost resolved itself during the brief two centuries of the British invasion by concluding that the Hindu religion itself was useless. It was this inner conflict in the Hindu psyche that Swamiji was addressing when he wrote immortal those words to Alasinga, ‘The Hindu must not give up his religion, but must keep religion within its proper limits and give freedom to society to grow.’

Yes, it was time we recognized that our social structure was indeed flawed and needed urgent reconstruction. But that was not the crying need to the hour. The crying need was to immediately dissociate the essential aspect of Hindu religion from the non-essential aspect of the same Hindu religion. Why? Because the forces that would reconstruct the Hindu society had already been unleashed by the impact of the British invasion on India, and there was the imminent danger of the essential Hindu religion being thrown out along with the dated, putrefying social structure sanctioned by Hinduism. That is why Swamiji wrote to Alasinga, “With the introduction of modern competition, see how caste is disappearing fast! No religion is now necessary to kill it. The Brahmana shopkeeper, shoemaker, and wine-distiller are common in Northern India. And why? Because of competition. No man is prohibited from doing anything he pleases for his livelihood under the present Government, and the result is neck and neck competition, and thus thousands are seeking and finding the highest level they were born for, instead of vegetating at the bottom.”

So, basically, Caste was one of the viable options on which society could be formed in order to lead mankind to its fulfilment. It was not the only option. It was therefore dispensable. And the social forces that had started working in India had already initiated that dismantling work. There was no need for any religious leader to do that job anymore. The main job that devolved on the religious leader in the Hindu society was the immediate dissociation of the personal aspect of religion from its collective aspect; else, there was the danger that both would be lost. That would be an irreparable loss to mankind as a whole, for, the personal aspect of the Hindu religion contained Vedanta, the science of Religion.

How did Swamiji perform this life-saving surgery for Hinduism? Swamiji did not do this exercise for Hinduism alone. He did it for all religions. But its patent impact was on Hinduism since it had the required maturity to accept the correction. We believe that all religions will in due course also accept this important correction. Sister Nivedita explains this almost poetically in her Introduction to the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda[16] as follows:

Of the Swami’s address before the Parliament of Religions, it may be said that when he began to speak it was of ‘the religious ideas of the Hindus’, but when he ended, Hinduism had been created. The moment was ripe with this potentiality. The vast audience that faced him represented exclusively the occidental mind, but included some development of all that in this was most distinctive. Every nation in Europe has poured in its human contribution upon America, and notably upon Chicago, where the Parliament was held. Much of the best, as well as some of the worst, of modern effort and struggle, is at all times to be met with, within the frontiers of that Western Civic Queen, whose feet are upon the shores of Lake Michigan, as she sits and broods, with the light of the North in her eyes. There is very little in the modern consciousness, very little inherited from the past of Europe, that does not hold some outpost in the city of Chicago. And while the teeming life and eager interests of that center may seem to some of us for the present largely a chaos, yet they are undoubtedly making for the revealing of some noble and slow-wrought ideal of human unity, when the days of their ripening shall be fully accomplished.

Such was the psychological area, such the sea of mind, young, tumultuous, overflowing with its own energy and self-assurance, yet inquisitive and alert withal, which confronted Vivekananda when he rose to speak. Behind him, on the contrary, lay an ocean, calm with long ages of spiritual development. Behind him lay a world that dated itself from the Vedas, and remembered itself in the Upanishads, a world to which Buddhism was almost modern; a world that was filled with religious systems of faiths and creeds; a quiet land, steeped in the sunlight of the tropics, the dust of whose roads had been trodden by the feet of the saints for ages upon ages. Behind him, in short, lay India, with her thousands of years of national development, in which she had sounded many things, proved many things, and realized almost all, save only her own perfect unanimity, from end to end of her great expanse of time and space, as to certain fundamental and essential truths, held by all her people in common.

These, then, were the two mind-floods, two immense rivers of thought, as it were, Eastern and modern, of which the yellow-clad wanderer on the platform of the Parliament of Religions formed for a moment the point of confluence. The formulation of the common bases of Hinduism was the inevitable result of the shock of their contact, in a personality, so impersonal. For it was no experience of his own that rose to the lips of the Swami Vivekananda there. He did not even take advantage of the occasion to tell the story of his Master. Instead of either of these, it was the religious consciousness of India that spoke through him, the message of his whole people, as determined by their whole past. And as he spoke, in the youth and noonday of the West, a nation, sleeping in the shadows of the darkened half of earth, on the far side of the Pacific, waited in spirit for the words that would be borne on the dawn that was travelling towards them, to reveal to them the secret of their own greatness and strength.

Others stood beside the Swami Vivekananda, on the same platform as he, as apostles of particular creeds and churches. But it was his glory that he came to preach a religion to which each of these was, in his own words, ‘only a travelling, a coming up, of different men, and women, through various conditions and circumstances to the same goal’. He stood there, as he declared, to tell of One who had said of them all, not that one or another was true, in this or that respect, or for this or that reason, but that ‘All these are threaded upon Me, as pearls upon a string. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power, raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there.’ To the Hindu, says Vivekananda, ‘Man is not travelling from error to truth, but climbing up from truth to truth, from truth that is lower to truth that is higher.’ This, and the teaching of Mukti — the doctrine that ‘man is to become divine by realizing the divine,’ that religion is perfected in us only when it has led us to ‘Him who is the one life in a universe of death, Him who is the constant basis of an ever-changing world, that One who is the only soul, of which all souls are but delusive manifestations’ — may be taken as the two great outstanding truths which, authenticated by the longest and most complex experience in human history, India proclaimed through him to the modern world of the West.

For India herself, the short address forms, as has been said, a brief Charter of Enfranchisement. Hinduism in its wholeness the speaker bases on the Vedas, but he spiritualizes our conception of the word, even while he utters it. To him, all that is true is Veda. ‘By the Vedas,’ he says, ‘no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.’ Incidentally, he discloses his conception of the Sanatana Dharma. ‘From the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy, of which the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes, to the lowest 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.’ To his mind, there could be no sect, no school, no sincere religious experience of the Indian people — however like an aberration it might seem to the individual — that might rightly be excluded from the embrace of Hinduism. And of this Indian Mother-Church, according to him, the distinctive doctrine is that of the Ishta Devata, the right of each soul to choose its own path, and to seek God in its own way. No army, then, carries the banner of so wide an Empire as that of Hinduism, thus defined. For as her spiritual goal is the finding of God, even so is her spiritual rule the perfect freedom of every soul to be itself.

New India, new God, new rituals:

“For India herself, the short address forms, as has been said, a brief Charter of Enfranchisement.” In one short, aphoristic statement, Sister Nivedita summarizes the most important takeaway from the Chicago addresses of Swamiji. She had the incredibly vast, immensely integrating vision of saying, “Of the Swami’s address before the Parliament of Religions, it may be said that when he began to speak it was of ‘the religious ideas of the Hindus’, but when he ended, Hinduism had been created.” This is indeed a very sweeping statement Sister makes. She says that as a direct consequence of Swamiji’s addresses in Chicago Parliament, Hinduism itself was created. What could she possibly mean by this? Didn’t Hinduism exist before this 11th September 1893 event?

The personal and collective aspects of the Hindu religion had got so inextricably mixed up that the case for salvaging this religion seemed all but hopeless. Swami Vivekananda, through his addresses in the Chicago Parliament of Religions and in his subsequent lectures in India from Colombo to Almora, clearly excised the pure Hindu religion from its accumulated dross. The pure Hindu religion is what we have been calling the personal aspect of Hinduism; it is a most personal affair; it consists only of soul, God and the relation between them. There is no second person involved in that affair. That is true Hinduism. In fact that is true Christianity or Islam too. All religions have that aspect. The collective aspect of Hinduism or any religion, for that matter, is politics. Tradition has given the name religion to it, but it is politics. True religion has nothing to do with it. The farther these two aspects can remain from each other, the better for society and mankind.

Hindus, including the leaders of the Hindu religion, the leaders of the Hindu society, and the masses were given a clear picture of the pure, unadulterated form of their own religion by Swami Vivekananda. And this major work, he started with his Chicago lectures. Hence Sister Nivedita said, “Of the Swami’s address before the Parliament of Religions, it may be said that when he began to speak it was of ‘the religious ideas of the Hindus’, but when he ended, Hinduism had been created.”

Some year later, Swamiji himself was to say, “Now we have a new India, with its new God, new religion, and new Vedas. When, O Lord, shall our land be free from this eternal dwelling upon the past?[17]

Note the use of the words, ‘a new India, with its new God, new religion, and new Vedas’. Swamiji had the vision of a Rishi. He saw clearly what he was meant to do, and also saw clearly what would be the outcome of his actions on India. Since we are followers of Swami Vivekananda, we hold that this tremendous transformation of the country, and its religion, and its society were the handiwork of Swami Vivekananda. It can however, equally be argued that Swami Vivekananda himself was the product of the deeper national forces that had awakened and had started working changes in the nation. Whatever be the case, this much is certain; India has started rejuvenating itself. It is a whole-soul transformation that is being wrought this time.

We say that Swamiji was able to see clearly the exact changes occurring in the body, mind and soul of India based on some of his own recorded observations. For instance, look at the clarity in his vision in the following conversation[18]:

“Is India conscious of the awakening that you allude to?”

Perfectly conscious. The world perhaps sees it chiefly in the Congress movement and in the field of social reform; but the awakening is quite as real in religion, though it works more silently.”

Why did Swami Vivekananda use the words ‘a new India’? This opens up a huge area of thought which we shall deal with in a separate essay. Suffice it to say for now that the changes that have occurred in India since Swamiji uttered these words are nothing less than the change seen when the phoenix rises from the ashes of its dead predecessor. The entire perception of the nation, the religion, the society, the national governance, the education, the economy, the politics, the hopes, the aspirations have all changed beyond recognition already in a span of 125 years! A country that was predicted to implode within a decade of the British leaving this land has resurrected miraculously and is vying with the world leaders for its place of pride.

Modern arrangement for society & religion in India:

            What was the arrangement for society and religion in India in the past? This issue assumes importance because India is not a small land or a small group of people; it is a very vast land, with a humungous population having an unbroken civilization of at least 5000 years of existence. One can’t initiate changes in such an entity without creating tsunamis of upheaval in society and individual lives. Although the changes wrought in India in the last 100 years is nothing less than complete, the upheaval in the body and soul of India, in the society and in individual lives has not been all that devastating; at least not commensurate with the scale of changes that have been wrought. Why is that so? Swamiji avers that India was blessed with the life of Sri Ramakrishna, who embodied the soul of India, as it were, and sustained the entire gamut of transformational shock in his own person, thereby smoothening the transition for all of us. He derives this explanation from the tenets of Vedanta: “Vedanta…tells us that we not only have to live the life of all past humanity, but also the future life of all humanity. The man who does the first is the educated man; the second is the Jivanmukta, forever free (even while living).[19]

            India was always ruled by kings. That was because the social norms dictated by religion, which held sway over the land and its people for thousands of years prescribed that governance would be done by a particular caste of people called the Kshatriyas. The Brahmins would frame the social laws, and guide the Kshatriyas to enforce them in society. That has now changed. India is a democratic republic now. Masses will elect their leaders, who will govern the land and the people based on the Constitution of India, which is the Law. This Constitution of India does not derive its sanction from Hinduism or any religion, but is based entirely on principles of natural justice and human rights. This Constitution recognizes the fact that caste-based distinctions in the Indian society will have to be phased out and replaced by meritocracy. This development is unique in India’s history. The entire responsibility of framing social laws has, for the first time in its thousands of years of existence, been taken away from the religious leaders and has been vested on the masses themselves. Religion therefore has become a truly personal affair of every Indian. Society has nothing to dictate regarding the personal religion of any individual in our nation now, just as nobody’s religion has anything to dictate about social norms, mores and interactions.

The exact amount of deviation from its past, all this entails for India, is something that is beyond our understanding.[20] When the British left India in 1947, we chose to be a democratic nation; then we framed an amazingly elaborate Constitution and placed it at the head of our society. We voluntarily chose the Rule of Law, effectively dissociating religion from politics and social life.

Of course, Swami Vivekananda was not alive when these momentous decisions were taken in India. But, we contend that each one of these decisions was directly initiated by the great Swami. He himself was aware of the extent of impact of his work on the future of India. Take a look at this amazing conversation[21]:

“Have you given any attention to the Indian National Congress movement?”

I cannot claim to have given much; my work is in another part of the field. But I regard the movement as significant, and heartily wish it success. A nation is being made out of India’s different races. I sometimes think they are no less various than the different peoples of Europe. In the past, Europe has struggled for Indian trade, a trade which has played a tremendous part in the civilization of the world; its acquisition might almost be called a turning-point in the history of humanity. We see the Dutch, Portuguese, French, and English contending for it in succession. The discovery of America may be traced to the indemnification the Venetians sought in the far distant West for the loss they suffered in the East.”

“Where will it end?”

It will certainly end in the working out of India’s homogeneity, in her acquiring what we may call democratic ideas. Intelligence must not remain the monopoly of the cultured few; it will be disseminated from higher to lower classes. Education is coming, and compulsory education will follow. The immense power of our people for work must be utilized. India’s potentialities are great and will be called forth.

Indian society was, all along, structured on the framework of the Caste system. This system of social organization is most certainly the greatest invention of the human mind. There never was a time in its incredibly long history that the Indian society did not follow this system for organizing itself. And yet, in one fell swoop, this grand superstructure was discarded when we adopted the Constitution in 1950. It is really very difficult to clearly imagine the ramifications of this change in our society. And yet, the change was so smooth, and so natural, that none of us have actually felt the shocks consequent upon such a momentous change. Swami Vivekananda explains the reason in the same conversation: “No reasonable person aims at assimilating India to England; the body is made by the thought that lies behind it. The body politic is thus the expression of national thought, and in India, of thousands of years of thought. To Europeanize India is therefore an impossible and foolish task: the elements of progress were always actively present in India. As soon as a peaceful government was there, these have always shown themselves. From the time of the Upanishads down to the present day, nearly all our great Teachers have wanted to break through the barriers of caste, i.e. caste in its degenerate state, not the original system. What little good you see in the present caste clings to it from the original caste, which was the most glorious social institution. Buddha tried to re-establish caste in its original form. At every period of India’s awakening, there have always been great efforts made to break down caste. But it must always be we who build up a new India as an effect and continuation of her past, assimilating helpful foreign ideas wherever they may be found. Never can it be they; growth must proceed from within. All that England can do is to help India to work out her own salvation. All progress at the dictation of another, whose hand is at India’s throat, is valueless in my opinion. The highest work can only degenerate when slave-labor produces it.[22]

The question that arises is this: What replaces the Caste system in India today? Swami Vivekananda believes that the British introduced certain systems of governance into our nation which have essentially demolished the Caste system. He notes that every religious leader of the past in India had to deal with the Caste system, right from the Upanishads to Buddha up to the recent ones like Nanak, Kabir & Ramanuja. He and his Guru, Sri Ramakrishna, did not have to deal with that rather unpleasant task. The British Empire did that ‘dirty job’ for him, so to speak.

But, can something introduced by a foreign civilization really work for India? Will it organically match with the national body, mind and soul of India? As Swami Vivekananda says: “No reasonable person aims at assimilating India to England; the body is made by the thought that lies behind it. The body politic is thus the expression of national thought, and in India, of thousands of years of thought. To Europeanize India is therefore an impossible and foolish task: the elements of progress were always actively present in India.” So, whatever it was that the British introduced into India, must be ‘Indianized’, so to speak, for natural assimilation by the nation. What exactly did the British introduce into the Indian society that replaced the formidable Caste system, and how exactly did Swami Vivekananda go about ‘Indianizing’ it are the topics of another essay, for they need sufficient elaboration. Suffice it to say that this gargantuan task was achieved by Swami Vivekananda for this nation by means of ‘Organization’ that the British introduced into India, complete dissociation of the personal aspect of Hinduism from its collective aspect, and prescribing Karma Yoga to the masses as the divinizing tool for organization in daily life. This triad of ideas, when put to work, supremely fulfils the purpose of the Caste system in the Indian context.[23] There is a distinctly spiritual aspect to this work, and Swamiji chose to work in that field, as he himself told the London Reporter C.S.B, “my work is in another part of the field.”

Hindutva as a logical growth in Hinduism:

Till now, we have dealt with in detail about the implications of the ideas of Swami Vivekananda in the Indian context. We still have to explain the phenomenon of Hindutva, as we pointed out in the beginning of this article.

The ideology of Hindutva has been studied deeply in recent times by scholars such as Shamsul Islam, Jyotirmaya Sharma, Walter Anderson and Shridhar Damle. The roots of the idea lie in the scholarly works of Veer Savarkar and M S Golwalkar of the RSS. The point of contention revolves around the fact that Golwalkar and the RSS leaders claim to have derived this ideology from the message of Swami Vivekananda! Is that a correct stand? What complicates the issue further is the fact that the organization started by Swami Vivekananda himself has always distanced itself from this ideology, much to the chagrin of the RSS leaders. This conscious distancing is all the more ironic given the fact that Golwalkar was a disciple of Swami Akhandananda, the 3rd President of the organization founded by Swami Vivekananda. What exactly is happening here? Most of the followers, disciples, and well-wishers of both the Ramakrishna Mission and the RSS are at a loss due to this perceptible distance between these two mighty organizations. We need to understand this issue.

It is interesting to note that one of the lectures Swami Vivekananda delivered during the Chicago Parliament was ‘Buddhism – the fulfilment of Hinduism’. He himself said that he represented the Hindu religion. Buddhism was officially represented by another person. It was common knowledge that Buddhism arose in India but was rooted out of the country. Historical forces at work in the Indian society did not find it compatible with India’s destiny to retain Buddhism. Why would he now speak of Buddhism as a fulfilment of Hinduism?

The main problem with understanding things like this with respect to India is the awful absence of recorded history of the land and its people. India has a long, unbroken existence of at least 5000 years. But that period has innumerable gaps. Today it has become almost impossible to reconstruct the exact events, uncover the exact causes for those developments, understand the exact sequence of progress of the nation, and thereby make sense of why we are what we are today. Swami Vivekananda, however, undoubtedly tapped into the memories left behind in the national mind and was able to reconstruct the history in incredible detail.

The actual causes for the rise of Hindutva lie in the unrecorded portions of India’s ancient history. In the wake of Buddhism, the Kshatriya Caste was all but emasculated in the Indian society. Overmuch emphasis on Ahimsa made the Kshatriya’s role redundant in society. Things went on quite well for a long time even after this terrible decision, but the impact was felt about a thousand years later when the Muslims came. There was no resisting power from the Indian society that could put the socially non-integrating, and socially & religiously aggressive Muslims in their place. Simultaneously, hordes of Shudras switched camps to Islam, voluntarily, right under the nose of the Hindu leaders. These two developments devastated the Hindu society and the Hindu lost his self-confidence. The Hindu leaders felt that their Caste system was found to be lacking but they had no alternative. Added to this was the discovery of the New World and the Industrial Revolution, both of which ultimately rendered the Hindu way of life meaningless politically, socially and economically. The sequence of events gave us the message that there was nothing worthwhile in the Hindu scheme of life, a feedback loop which enveloped the Hindu religion too in its death grasp.

We need to understand an important point here. What is it that the Hindu is looking for, and has been looking for in life? Why did the Hindu feel so low about himself for over 1000 years? The Hindu wants an opportunity to practice his personal religion in a social framework that will allow him to enjoy life in such a way that his life’s experiences will gradually lead him towards complete renunciation and merge him with God in Samadhi. The Hindu is congenitally a lover of life. He is also simultaneously a born believer in the Spirit. It is indeed a self-contradiction but the Hindu is programmed, as it were, to resolve these opposing forces in his own life. He needs a society organized in such a way that he is allowed to resolve this conflict for himself. Caste system had provided this social homeostasis for his personal experiments. It was imperative that he be not disturbed by others in the society regarding how he leads his personal religious life. There is a particular way of viewing Indian history in which the entire history of this land can be seen to revolve around this one vital point – the Hindu will not be disturbed regarding how he leads his personal religious life. No doubt he needs society to help him in this endeavor, for which reason, he will allow society and its leaders, lot of flexibility in manipulating social norms in their effort to provide him the one and only thing he needs – his personal religious space. If, by chance or due to ignorance, the leaders try to touch him there, the Hindu rejects the leaders and their authority.

That is the reason why Buddha and his ideas were rejected by the Hindus. Then came the Muslims. He allowed the Muslims to take care of the governance of his society, so that he could lead his personal religious life in peace. But, the Muslim turned out to be very aggressive. He would give governance at a price; he was willing to govern the Hindus only if they renounced their religion, both personal and social, and adopt Islam. The Muslim was constrained to do this because the only method he knew of governing a society was if the people accepted Sharia. The social inflexibility of the Muslim and the social inflexibility of the Hindu, both of which are wrongly conflated with their religions, have led to an impasse in their social intercourse in India. The Muslim was able to convert the Hindu by reading him the Kalima (that is how Muslims convert people.) Once the Hindu uttered the name of Allah, the Muslim was at peace thinking he had converted the Hindu and he would now be able to govern him according to the social norms of Islam, called Sharia. But, very soon, he would find the Hindu reverting back to his old Hindu ways of life! The Hindu had no way of rejecting or denouncing his own religion! There was no conceivable act by which a Hindu could cease to be a Hindu! This was one scenario that the Muslim had not encountered anywhere in the world, and he had conquered almost the entire known world by the time he turned to India. The Hindu was a tease for the Muslim. The Hindu apparently seemed to become a Muslim, but would still remain a Hindu behind his back.

Sri Ramakrishna mentions a beautiful story in the Gospel[24] in this connection: “Is it an easy thing to destroy old tendencies? Once there lived a very pious Hindu who always worshipped the Divine Mother and chanted Her name. When the Mussulmans conquered the country, they forced him embrace Islam. They said to him: ‘You are now a Muslim. Say “Allah”. From now on you must repeat only the name of Allah.’ With great difficulty he repeated the word ‘Allah’, but every now and then blurted out ‘Jagadamba’. At that, the Mussulmans were about to beat him. Thereupon he said to them: ‘I beseech you! Please do not kill me. I have been trying my utmost to repeat the name of Allah, but our Jagadamba has filled me up to the throat. She pushes out your Allah.’ (All laugh.)”

This natural disposition of the Hindu seemed like treason to the Muslim and he was dealt with violently in most cases. The Hindu simply could not make sense of this violent behavior of the Muslim. The Hindu looked up to the Muslim as his Ruler, as the administrator, as his social protector. The Hindu felt that the Muslim would take care of a vital social job for him and provide him the safety he needed to practice his personal religious life, but the protector himself turned out to be an oppressor! The Hindu had basically sub-contracted governance and protection to the Muslim, and the Muslim’s behavior did not reflect the trust that the Hindu had placed on him. Consequently, the natural disposition of the Muslim seemed like treason to the Hindu! Thus, for about 800 years, the two communities shared house with growing mutual distrust. In a sense, both the Hindu and the Muslim were innocent; each was just trying to use the other to achieve his own end.[25] There were innumerable attempts at understanding each other. Each such case ended up in denouncing the collective aspects of their religions and the end result was blasphemous to themselves. Attempts such as the Din-e-ilahi by Akbar[26] and the Sufi movements were denounced by Islam as apostasy. Attempts such as the Bhakti movement were denounced as apostasy by traditional Hinduism since no one could determine the caste to which the resulting Hindu belonged.[27]

In such a situation, came the British. They were able to give a greatly balanced, peaceful and efficient system of social governance. The only fault with the British was that they had no clue about the collective Hindu Religion. Yet, they gave a peaceful government to the Hindu through their own methods of tier-organization systems, and immediately, the Hindu started waking up. That has ever been the case with India. Swami Vivekananda says, “The elements of progress were always actively present in India. As soon as a peaceful government was there, these have always shown themselves.” The Hindu always believed that peaceful Government, in other words, a stable society could only be achieved through the Caste system, with the Kshatriya caste performing his duties properly. In this case, the British were able to achieve the same result with absolutely no clue of that intricate, age-old social system. Yet, the moment the British achieved social homeostasis, the essential Hindu started asserting himself, which we saw in Sri Ramakrishna realizing God afresh. This one single event of one man achieving success in his personal religion sent the message across to every Hindu that his own essential religion was very much valid. From then started the Hindu resurrection.

The Hindu learnt a great lesson from these developments. There was a clear distinction between the essential Hinduism and the social aspects of Hinduism. There was an alternative to the social aspect of Hinduism, as the British had demonstrated in India.

The fall of the Kshatriya had led to cascading effects on the economic condition of the land too. The Hindu had slowly lost his ability to create wealth since protection to the wealth generator did not exist. The Muslim rulers were able to provide a semblance of that protection and once again the nation became rich. But, the Muslim reign was never on a firm foothold in India since it lacked deep moorings in the society and once again, dacoits and thugs thrived on important supply lines and economy nose-dived. Barring the period of Akbar, during the rest of the period of Mughal Rule, the line of control from the Emperor’s Capital to the smallest and farthest village was very weak. At the village levels, there were revenue collecting officials, who would mark their territories. But, between two such villages, the area that fell under neither official, which was supposed to be protected by the Central forces, would lie open. These areas were infested with dacoits and thugs who were the scourge of the indigenous businessman. The British were able to provide great protection along supply lines, and once again, wealth generation peaked in this wonderful land. But, the British endeavor was geared to only siphon the wealth to Britain and the creator of wealth in India remained impoverished. Therefore, the self-dignity, that the Hindu had lost post-Buddhistic period, did not awaken fully. But, the British era was a period of intense self-introspection by the Hindu soul wherein it realized that its core was sound and healthy. From now on, the Hindu was surely on the path of regaining his entire glory. Having learnt that its core was healthy, the afflictions of the mind and body would now be cured. It was just a matter of time.

The only input that remained was financial freedom for the Hindu. He needed an environment[28] where he could freely invest capital and effort[29], and generate wealth which he would enjoy[30]. This last input was provided to the Hindu through the 1991 liberalization process. Until these policies came into force, the labor of the Hindu populace was but slave-labor. That is the reason Swami Vivekananda says the following words: At every period of India’s awakening, there have always been great efforts made to break down caste. But it must always be we who build up a new India as an effect and continuation of her past, assimilating helpful foreign ideas wherever they may be found. Never can it be they; growth must proceed from within. All that England can do is to help India to work out her own salvation. All progress at the dictation of another, whose hand is at India’s throat, is valueless in my opinion. The highest work can only degenerate when slave-labor produces it.” The economic liberalization policies unshackled the latent forces from within the masses. We must not fail to notice one more development that had occurred by the time the economy got liberalized inside India. By this time, a strong diaspora had established itself across the world, gaining critical mass especially in Europe and America. Concomitant with these developments, we see a trend emerging from within the Hindu across the country. For the first time in over 1000 years, the Hindu gained self-assurance. The Hindu started to stand up for his own safety in the Indian society!

Up until this moment in Indian history, the Hindu had to be directed by a central force, to fight for protection of the society, and consequently, for protection of the Hindu individual. But as we saw above, right from the period of Buddha, the central direction was found lacking in Indian society. The individual Hindu looked up to effete Hindu kings, Muslim rulers, and British governors for that direction. He sought their direction in guiding him in protecting himself. The Hindus had committed the foolish mistake of sub-contracting self-protection to others! Many social activities can indeed be successfully sub-contracted to others; but not protection! Now had come the time, when political and economic freedom, coupled with the message of ever-existing spiritual freedom conveyed by Swami Vivekananda[31], that the Hindu realized he had to stand up for himself. The constant irritation from the Muslim and the Christian communities towards his personal religion had to be addressed. In seemingly unconnected incidents across the country, around this period, the Hindus started defending themselves aggressively against the Christian missionaries and Muslim proselytizers. This pan-India phenomenon was termed as ‘Hindutva’ by the RSS[32], as ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ by the West, and as ‘Hindu Terrorism’ by the Communists. Whatever be the name we give to this new phenomenon, it is a natural growth within the Hindu community that can only be understood against its hoary historical background as elaborated above.

So, what the Hindu has always wanted was freedom to enjoy life, in a social structure so designed as to integrate all his life’s experiences into an overarching, living, spiritual experience of God. There are two aspects to what the Hindu wants; the personal, internal aspect of seeking for union with God; the collective, political aspect of having and wielding power over society in framing social laws to create, maintain and protect a social milieu conducive to achieve his personal goals. In Sri Ramakrishna’s experiences and Swami Vivekananda’s utterances, he recognized the continued validity of the personal aspect of his aspirations; in the recent developments of Hindu social assertion, he recognizes the renewed validity of his social and political aspirations. These two developments therefore go hand in hand and are complementary to each other.

Hindutva – its limitation: The international mission of Hinduism

As we have amply demonstrated above, this newly awakened self-assertion of the Hindu, this newly awakened self-recognition of the Hindu’s collective strength, which is manifesting as his ability to resist Muslim and Christian aggression, is a logical outcome of the overall Hindu rejuvenation. No one person, or one organization, can claim responsibility for it. Rather, it would be correct to state that persons and organizations are the results of this gigantic rejuvenation.

The immediate job is to temper this power that is awakening within the Hindu people. Why? Otherwise, the enormous power that is being unleashed will fritter itself away in mere political bickering and intrigue, and in the worst-case scenario, will devour itself up! There is a grand purpose behind this rejuvenation. It is not to be trivialized into being just a political tool, which is unfortunately what the ‘Hindutva’ movement apparently turning out to be.

What is this job of tempering that is needed to be done now? And who will do it? And who will listen to whom in this matter? Historical forces of distrust lurking beneath the surface in the Hindu mind will immediately misunderstand any such effort to be the derailing of the Hindutva movement by their age-old enemies such as the Muslims, Christians and the Communists. In fact, such efforts might also be misinterpreted as the machinations of the wily Brahmins to prevent the rise of the Kshatriyas. Swami Vivekananda very interestingly reads the entire history of India as the extended struggle for power and dominance between the Brahmin and the Kshatriya. He uses the term ‘political jealousy’[33] to describe the tension between them. (See footnote #22 above). When seen at the national level, even the extended discord between the Hindus and the Muslims or the Hindus and the Christians may be rightly situated within this perspective. Again, in many places, Swami Vivekananda seems to be in complete favor of the Caste system and seems like he wants to bring back that system into the Indian society. This has to be understood in the following lines: The Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra are no doubt collectives in the Hindu society; and in that sense, they really have lost relevance in the present day. But, it is equally true that each Hindu has within himself all these four tendencies within him. Each Hindu has within himself Brahminical aspirations of God-realization through renunciation, Kshatriya traits of service, benevolence and charity, Vaishya capacities for wealth generation and distribution, and the Shudra ability for tireless labor and forbearance.

Let us recall the following conversations of Swami Vivekananda in this context:[34]

“I have only one question more to ask you. You have defined the attitude and function of your movement with regard to your own people. Could you in the same way characterize your methods of action as a whole?”

“Our method”, said the Swami, “is very easily described. It simply consists in reasserting the national life. Buddha preached renunciation. India heard, and yet in six centuries she reached her greatest height. The secret lies there. The national ideals of India are RENUNCIATION and SERVICE. Intensify her in those channels, and the rest will take care of itself. The banner of the spiritual cannot be raised too high in this country. In it alone is salvation.”

A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and the fallen and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising-up – the gospel of equality.[35]

But at the same time (in rejecting Buddhism), Brahminism lost something – that reforming zeal, that wonderful sympathy and charity for everybody, that wonderful heaven which Buddhism had brought to the masses and which had rendered Indian society so great that a Greek historian who wrote about India of that time was led to say that no Hindu was known to tell an untruth and no Hindu woman was known to be unchaste.

Hinduism cannot live without Buddhism, nor Buddhism without Hinduism. Then realize what the separation has shown to us, that the Buddhists cannot stand without the brain and philosophy of the Brahmins, nor the Brahmin without the heart of the Buddhist. This separation between the Buddhists and the Brahmins is the cause of the downfall of India. That is why India is populated by three hundred millions of beggars, and that is why India has been the slave of conquerors for the last thousand years. Let us then join the wonderful intellect of the Brahmins with the heart, the noble soul, the wonderful humanizing power of the Great Master.[36]

Each man has a mission in life, which is the result of all his infinite past Karma. Each of you was born with a splendid heritage, which is the whole of the infinite past life of your glorious nation. Millions of your ancestors are watching, as it were, every action of yours, so be alert. And what is the mission with which every Hindu child is born? Have you not read the proud declaration of Manu regarding the Brahmin where he says that the birth of the Brahmin is ‘for the protection of the treasury of religion’? I should say that that is the mission not only of the Brahmin, but of every child, whether boy or girl, who is born in this blessed land ‘for the protection of the treasury of religion’. And every other problem in life must be subordinated to that one principal theme. That is also the law of harmony in music. There may be a nation whose theme of life is political supremacy; religion and everything else must become subordinate to that one great theme of its life. But here is another nation whose great theme of life is spirituality and renunciation, whose one watchword is that this world is all vanity and a delusion of three days, and everything else, whether science or knowledge, enjoyment or powers, wealth, name, or fame, must be subordinated to that one theme. The secret of a true Hindu’s character lies in the subordination of his knowledge of European sciences and learning, of his wealth, position, and name, to that one principal theme which is inborn in every Hindu child – the spirituality and purity of the race.

Our ideal of high birth, therefore, is different from, that of others. Our ideal is the Brahmin of spiritual culture and renunciation. By the Brahmin ideal what do I mean? I mean the ideal Brahmin-ness in which worldliness is altogether absent and true wisdom is abundantly present. That is the ideal of the Hindu race. Have you not heard how it is declared that he, the Brahmin, is not amenable to law, that he has no law, that he is not governed by kings, and that his body cannot be hurt? That is perfectly true. Do not understand it in the light thrown upon it by interested and ignorant fools, but understand it in the light of the true and original Vedantic conception. If the Brahmin is he who has killed all selfishness and who lives and works to acquire and propagate wisdom and the power of love – if a country is altogether inhabited by such Brahmins, by men and women who are spiritual and moral and good, is it strange to think of that country as being above and beyond all law? What police, what military are necessary to govern them? Why should anyone govern them at all? Why should they live under a government? They are good and noble, and they are the men of God; these are our ideal Brahmins, and we read that in the Satya Yuga there was only one caste, and that was the Brahmin. We read in the Mahabharata that the whole world was in the beginning peopled with Brahmins, and that as they began to degenerate, they became divided into different castes, and that when the cycle turns round, they will all go back to that Brahminical origin. This cycle is turning round now, and I draw your attention to this fact. Therefore our solution of the caste question is not degrading those who are already high up, is not running amuck through food and drink, is not jumping out of our own limits in order to have more enjoyment, but it comes by every one of us, fulfilling the dictates of our Vedantic religion, by our attaining spirituality, and by our becoming the ideal Brahmin. There is a law laid on each one of you in this land by your ancestors, whether you are Aryans or non-Aryans, Rishis or Brahmins, or the very lowest outcasts. The command is the same to you all, that you must make progress without stopping, and that from the highest man to the lowest Pariah, everyone in this country has to try and become the ideal Brahmin. This Vedantic idea is applicable not only here but over the whole world. Such is our ideal of caste as meant for raising all humanity slowly and gently towards the realization of that great ideal of the spiritual man who is non-resisting, calm, steady, worshipful, pure, and meditative. In that ideal there is God.[37]

Let us allow Swami Vivekananda himself to dictate the tempering to the newly awakened Kshatriyas among the Hindus. Power they shall exhibit, no doubt; power they shall wield, politically, economically and socially, no doubt. But it must be done in the sense of ‘Service’ only. It must be done as service to every Indian living in this land. It must be done with the object of achieving renunciation. Power is to be wielded and exercised with a view to achieve inner renunciation alone. All other attitudes are wrong and run against the national grain. Another way of saying the same thing is: The collective awakening of Brahmin Hindus and Kshatriya Hindus is not relevant anymore in India. What is needed immediately is the awakening of the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, the Vaishya and the Shudra within every Hindu. That is the reason Swamiji so beautifully said, “The national ideals of India are RENUNCIATION and SERVICE. Intensify her in those channels, and the rest will take care of itself. The banner of the spiritual cannot be raised too high in this country. In it alone is salvation.”

It is in this context that we say that Hinduism thus has an International mission to fulfil. It has a very particular duty to perform in the International level. Hinduism has to educate Islam and Christianity that they too have an essential and non-essential aspect within them. The time has come all over the world to delegate the non-essential aspects of their religions, which is basically the socio-political aspects, to the Constitutions of the respective nations. Thus the individual is left free to practice his personal religion in peace. All social, political and economic affairs have to be immediately divorced from religion. No religion, be it Hinduism, Islam or Christianity will be permitted to wield any social, political or economic power. Religion everywhere shall exist in its purest form in every person, which is the eternal relationship of the eternal soul to the eternal God [38]. Hinduism has the requisite tools to uncover this immortal aspect in every religion. This is not conversion. This is education. This is leading every person by the hand with love in the heart to recognize and implement the eternal aspect in his own religion in his own life.

Once this education is imparted worldwide, a new era will dawn in the world. What the world needs today is this education whereby the entire social process is rendered free of all religious influences. Society everywhere should run on principles of natural justice and natural rights of human beings. It has now become possible to identify and establish those principles completely independent of religious sanction in every part of the world.

The rejuvenated Hindu identity has to perform this ‘Service’ to humanity everywhere, including within India.[39] Violence is anathema to service and education. You cannot serve by being violent. You cannot teach by being violent. Tremendous love in the heart pours out as service and education. The Hindutva movement has to urgently recognize this duty that falls on its part. Their new found power has to be channeled into educating the Indians (Hindus, Muslims and Christians) about ‘rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’.[40] And this service, this education, has to be done at the international level too. Unless this direction is given to the newly awakened power, this very power will devour the Indian society. And that would be a great loss to humanity itself. Swami Vivekananda said to Sri Narendranath Sen, Editor of the Mirror, “I believe that by this cultivation of religion and the wider diffusion of Vedanta, both this country and the West will gain enormously. To me the pursuit of politics is a secondary means in comparison with this. I will lay down my life to carry out this belief practically. If you believe in any other way of accomplishing the good of India, well, you may go on working your own way.[41]

Religious education – Harmony of Religions:

Take a look at the following words of Swami Vivekananda. They set the pace and impart the direction for the awakened Hindu collective power. If these words of the great Swami do not temper this force ‘for the good of all, for the benefit of all’, bleak indeed is our national future:

We live that grand truth (Ekam sat, Vipraha bahudha vadanti) in every vein, and our country has become the glorious land of religious toleration. It is here and here alone that they build temples and churches for the religions which have come with the object of condemning our own religion. This is one very great principle that the world is waiting to learn from us. Ay, you little know how much of intolerance is yet abroad. It struck me more than once that I should have to leave my bones on foreign shores owing to the prevalence of religious intolerance. Killing a man is nothing for religion’s sake; tomorrow they may do it in the very heart of the boasted civilization of the West, if today they are not really doing so.[42]

Therefore the world is waiting for this grand idea of universal toleration. It will be a great acquisition to civilization. Nay, no civilization can long exist unless this idea enters into it. No civilization can grow unless fanatics, bloodshed, and brutality stop. No civilization can begin to lift up its head until we look charitably upon one another; and the first step towards that much-needed charity is to look charitably and kindly upon the religious convictions of others. Nay more, to understand that not only should we be charitable, but positively helpful to each other, however different our religious ideas and convictions may be. And that is exactly what we do in India as I have just related to you. It is here in India that Hindus have built and are still building churches for Christians and mosques for Mohammedans. That is the thing to do. In spite of their hatred, in spite of their brutality, in spite of their cruelty, in spite of their tyranny, and in spite of the vile language they are given to uttering, we will and must go on building churches for the Christians and mosques for the Mohammedans until we conquer through love, until we have demonstrated to the world that love alone is the fittest thing to survive and not hatred, that it is gentleness that has the strength to live on and to fructify, and not mere brutality and physical force.[43]

…We have to teach them something, and that is our religion, that is our spirituality. For a complete civilization the world is waiting, waiting for the treasures to come out of India, waiting for the marvelous spiritual inheritance of the race, which, through decades of degradation and misery, the nation has still clutched to her breast. The world is waiting for that treasure; little do you know how much of hunger and of thirst there is outside of India for these wonderful treasures of our forefathers. We talk here, we quarrel with each other, we laugh at and we ridicule everything sacred, till it has become almost a national vice to ridicule everything holy. Little do we understand the heart-pangs of millions waiting outside the walls, stretching forth their hands for a little sip of that nectar which our forefathers have preserved in this land of India. Therefore we must go out, exchange our spirituality for anything they have to give us; for the marvels of the region of spirit we will exchange the marvels of the region of matter. We will not be students always, but teachers also. There cannot be friendship without equality, and there cannot be equality when one party is always the teacher and the other party sits always at his feet. If you want to become equal with the Englishman or the American, you will have to teach as well as to learn, and you have plenty yet to teach to the world for centuries to come. This has to be done. Fire and enthusiasm must be in our blood. We Bengalis have been credited with imagination, and I believe we have it. We have been ridiculed as an imaginative race, as men with a good deal of feeling. Let me tell you, my friends, intellect is great indeed, but it stops within certain bounds. It is through the heart, and the heart alone, that inspiration comes. It is through the feelings that the highest secrets are reached; and therefore it is the Bengali, the man of feeling, that has to do this work.[44]

Consciously or unconsciously that Indian idea of the divinity within everyone is expressing itself even in other countries. And in your books is the explanation which other nations have to accept. The treatment of one man to another will be entirely revolutionized, and these old, old ideas of pointing to the weakness of mankind will have to go. They will have received their death-blow within this century. Now people may stand up and criticize us. I have been criticized, from one end of the world to the other, as one who preaches the diabolical idea that there is no sin! Very good. The descendants of these very men will bless me as the preacher of virtue, and not of sin. I am the teacher of virtue, not of sin. I glory in being the preacher of light, and not of darkness.[45]

The second great idea which the world is waiting to receive from our Upanishads is the solidarity of this universe. The old lines of demarcation and differentiation are vanishing rapidly. Electricity and steam-power are placing the different parts of the world in intercommunication with each other, and, as a result, we Hindus no longer say that every country beyond our own land is peopled with demons and hobgoblins, nor do the people of Christian countries say that India is only peopled by cannibals and savages. When we go out of our country, we find the same brother-man, with the same strong hand to help, with the same lips to say godspeed; and sometimes they are better than in the country in which we are born. When they come here, they find the same brotherhood, the same cheer, the same godspeed.[46]

Our Upanishads say that the cause of all misery is ignorance; and that is perfectly true when applied to every state of life, either social or spiritual. It is ignorance that makes us hate each other, it is through ignorance that we do not know and do not love each other. As soon as we come to know each other, love comes, must come, for are we not one? Thus we find solidarity coming in spite of itself. Even in politics and sociology, problems that were only national twenty years ago can no more be solved on national grounds only. They are assuming huge proportions, gigantic shapes. They can only be solved when looked at in the broader light of international grounds. International organizations, international combinations, international laws are the cry of the day. That shows the solidarity. In science, every day they are coming to a similar broad view of matter. You speak of matter, the whole universe as one mass, one ocean of matter, in which you and I, the sun and the moon, and everything else are but the names of different little whirlpools and nothing more. Mentally speaking, it is one universal ocean of thought in which you and I are similar little whirlpools; and as spirit it moveth not, it changeth not. It is the One Unchangeable, Unbroken, Homogeneous Atman. The cry for morality is coming also, and that is to be found in our books. The explanation of morality, the fountain of ethics, that also the world wants; and that it will get here.[47]

Take a look at this observation and prophecy by Swami Vivekananda: It is here in India that Hindus have built and are still building churches for Christians and mosques for Mohammedans. That is the thing to do. In spite of their hatred, in spite of their brutality, in spite of their cruelty, in spite of their tyranny, and in spite of the vile language they are given to uttering, we will and must go on building churches for the Christians and mosques for the Mohammedans until we conquer through love, until we have demonstrated to the world that love alone is the fittest thing to survive and not hatred, that it is gentleness that has the strength to live on and to fructify, and not mere brutality and physical force. The Hindutva movement will immediately object to these words of Swami Vivekananda. They will instantly hound us by asking how we can tolerate the aggression of the Muslims and Christians, which we have done for many centuries. The centuries of distrust that has accumulated in the national mind has started to surface as a collective paranoia in the Hindu mind that if such tolerance and acceptance continues, the Hindus will be reduced to a minority population or may even become extinct!

That is precisely the reason for pointing out that we Hindus have an urgent international duty to perform; that of urgently educating the people of all religions about two vital ideas which Swami Vivekananda had highlighted in his Chicago addresses: One: Every religion has an essential and a non-essential part; the time has come to globally delegate the non-essential part of every religion to democratic processes of social intercourse. Two: Every religion states that man is divine; realizing this divinity in the context of one’s life is real religion, and not belief in dogmas. There is an urgent need to rapidly educate every part of the world with these two ideas.

The very introduction of these two ideas into any religion will instantly remove the sting of aggression from it. We must note that this does not mean we spread Vedanta among the Muslims and the Christians. That is not possible, for the Muslims and Christians will violently reject it as an affront on their religion. Proselytizing religions will misinterpret every attempt at communication as our effort at converting them! We need to dive into the Scriptures of these religions and discover the teachings and revelations of their prophets where they clearly say that each man is divine, and that each man needs to realize that divinity in his own life, and then each man has to realize his essential relationship with God. We need to become for the time-being, a Muslim and a Christian, as it were, and discover these universal ideas within Islam and Christianity. Swami Vivekananda confirms that these ideas already exist in each of those religions. We do not need to extrapolate or re-interpret the words of Christ, Mohammad or Buddha, which will not be acceptable by their followers at all. This is a job only a Hindu is capable of doing. The proverbial synthetic intellect of the Hindu will be able to perform this task of phenomenological study of all religions. But, it requires a powerful Hindu to teach these ideas to other religions, a powerful Hindu whose heart has opened itself to the touch of the Divine, not a rancorous, argumentative, name-calling, querulous Hindu who is arrogant with a newly discovered source of strength in collective numbers.

Can we gauge the immensity of this task? The teachers of this idea to other religions cannot harbor ill-feelings towards those other religions and expect to impart this education to them! It is education, not condescension that we are speaking of here. That is the reason we mentioned, even at the risk of being trolled, that there is an urgent need to temper the forces unleashed in the Hindu society in recent times. Swami Vivekananda says, “In every nation you will have to work through their methods. To every man you will have to speak in his own language. Now, in England or in America, if you want to preach religion to them, you will have to work through political methods — make organizations, societies, with voting, balloting, a president, and so on, because that is the language, the method of the Western race. On the other hand, if you want to speak of politics in India, you must speak through the language of religion. You will have to tell them something like this: ‘The man who cleans his house every morning will acquire such and such an amount of merit, he will go to heaven, or he comes to God.’ Unless you put it that way, they will not listen to you. It is a question of language. The thing done is the same. But with every race, you will have to speak their language in order to reach their hearts. And that is quite just. We need not fret about that.[48]

Note the words, ‘There cannot be friendship without equality.’ A weak people cannot stand up straight in the world platform and expect the world to listen to their voice. A weak people can at best cry and weep about oppression and exploitation, which is what we have done for the last 1000 years. We have now, as a people, regained our strength. Do we locate this new-found strength only in our collective numbers? Will we be so shortsighted as to believe that our power is only from the physical, communal, collective source? Will the real Hindu within each of us fail to perceive that the recently manifested strength, by which we are able to regain our lost respectability in the world polity, is also from the one and only real source of all strengths, the inner-most divine core of each one of us?

Swami Vivekananda says, Strength, strength is what the Upanishads speak to me from every page. This is the one great thing to remember, it has been the one great lesson I have been taught in my life; strength, it says, strength, O man, be not weak. Are there no human weaknesses? – says man. There are, say the Upanishads, but will more weakness heal them, would you try to wash dirt with dirt? Will sin cure sin, weakness cure weakness? Strength, O man, strength, say the Upanishads, stand up and be strong. Ay, it is the only literature in the world where you find the word ‘Abhih’, ‘fearless’, used again and again; in no other scripture in the world is this adjective applied either to God or to man, Abhih, fearless! And in my mind rises from the past the vision of the great Emperor of the West, Alexander the Great, and I see, as it were in a picture, the great monarch standing on the bank of the Indus, talking to one of our Sannyasins in the forest; the old man he was talking to, perhaps naked, stark naked, sitting upon a block of stone, and the Emperor, astonished at his wisdom, tempting him with gold and honor to come over to Greece. And this man smiles at his gold, and smiles at his temptations, and refuses; and then the Emperor standing on his authority as an Emperor, says, ‘I will kill you if you do not come’, and the man bursts into a laugh and says, ‘You never told such a falsehood in your life, as you tell just now. Who can kill me? Me you kill, Emperor of the material world! Never! For I am Spirit unborn and undecaying: never was I born and never do I die; I am the Infinite, the Omnipresent, the Omniscient; and you kill me, child that you are!’ That is strength, that is strength! And the more I read the Upanishads, my friends, my countrymen, the more I weep for you, for therein is the great practical application. Strength, strength for us. What we need is strength, who will give us strength? There are thousands to weaken us, and of stories we have had enough. Every one of our Puranas, if you press it, gives out stories enough to fill three-fourths of the libraries of the world. Everything that can weaken us as a race we have had for the last thousand years. It seems as if during that period the national life had this one end in view, viz how to make us weaker and weaker till we have become real earthworms, crawling at the feet of every one who dares to put his foot on us. Therefore, my friends, as one of your blood, as one that lives and dies with you, let me tell you that we want strength, strength, and every time, strength. And the Upanishads are the great mine of strength. Therein lies strength enough to invigorate the whole world; the whole world can be vivified, made strong, energized through them. They will call with trumpet voice upon the weak, the miserable, and the downtrodden of all races, all creeds, and all sects to stand on their feet and be free. Freedom, physical freedom, mental freedom, and spiritual freedom are the watchwords of the Upanishads.[49]

So, we need strength; we also need to temper it with this knowledge of the Spirit. Then, this strength will be a great boon to both ourselves and to the world. In the light of this idea, we can recognize the value of the recent WHF program, as well as its obvious shortcomings. If this Hindutva movement doesn’t deepen itself with spirituality and manifest love for all beings, in a few years, it will run out of steam and lose its relevance to society. Swami Vivekananda has the following words of caution which seem most relevant in the present developments in our country: …if a religion emphasizes the negative side too much, it is in danger of eventual destruction. Never can a reforming sect survive if it is only reforming; the formative elements alone – the real impulse, that is, the principles – lives on and on. After a reform has been brought about, it is the positive side that should be emphasized; after the building is finished the scaffolding must be taken away. [50]

The Hindutva movement professes its plans to ‘bring back’ to Hinduism all those people living in India who have converted to Islam or Christianity. The Hindutva movement claims to be backed by Swami Vivekananda’s exhortations in this regard too. These ideas of the movement are causes of great concern for the harmony, peace and security in India, which is a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. There are three important points to be understood in this regard.

One: A study of Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts clearly shows that he would never support a forcible ‘bringing back’ of anybody from any religion to Hinduism, just as he would not brook any religion forcibly ‘taking away’ any Hindu into other religions. In other words, ‘Conversion’ and ‘Re-conversion’ are not something he would support. There is nothing in his recorded works to lend credence to these ideas. People have to be given complete freedom to choose the religion they want to profess. This entire idea of ‘bringing back’ or ‘conversion’ is not religion at all. It is a social issue, and hence a political issue. The time has now come to accord every man the dignity he deserves. In the present social context, when we have clearly declared that we are a sovereign, democratic republic, why are people still categorized based on the religion they follow in their personal lives? Can’t all social, political and economic privileges attached to all religions be removed forthwith in the Indian context? For, religion really has nothing to do with social, political or economic affairs. To continue to do so is pure mischief.

Two: There are many instances where Swamiji did indeed speak of ‘bringing back Muslims and Christians back into our folds’. What was the idea? Hinduism must evolve a mechanism of welcoming people into its fold. These people may be erstwhile Hindus who left the Hindu fold for whatever reason and now voluntarily wish to come back. Or they may be entirely newcomers who wish to become Hindus. Swamiji was keenly aware of the fact that a Hindu must be born a Hindu. There are actually no universally accepted procedures for accepting people afresh into its folds. Why do other religions, especially proselytizing religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have such procedures? That was the organizational genius of their founders! If we are indeed a living, vibrant religion, why won’t we adopt new corporate, organizational procedures? Swamiji was alluding to this aspect of Hinduism when he did indeed comment on this issue. But in any case, let us make it clear that it was not out of anger at other proselytizing religions that he said those things. Nor did he encourage proactive, violent methods of ‘Reconversion’.

Three: Swami Vivekananda certainly endorses ideas of ‘conquering’ others. We saw him explaining these ideas in England to a reporter named C.S.B of the Indian newspaper in 1896.

“And is India finally to conquer her conquerors?”

Yes, in the world of ideas. England has the sword, the material world, as our Mohammedan conquerors had before her. Yet Akbar the Great became practically a Hindu; educated Mohammedans, the Sufis, are hardly to be distinguished from the Hindus; they do not eat beef, and in other ways conform to our usages. Their thought has become permeated bv ours.

“So, that is the fate you foresee for the lordly Sahib? Just at this moment he seems to be a long way off it.”

No, it is not so remote as you imply. In the world of religious ideas, the Hindu and the Englishman have much in common, and there is proof of the same thing among other religious communities. Where the English ruler or civil servant has had any knowledge of India’s literature, especially her philosophy, there exists the ground of a common sympathy, a territory constantly widening. It is not too much to say that only ignorance is the cause of that exclusive — sometimes even contemptuous — attitude assumed by some. [51]

But this ‘conquest in the world of ideas’ is not the ‘bringing back’ or ‘conversion’. It is a great job of educating the people the world over about the essentials of their own religions. It doesn’t matter if they belong to Hinduism or Islam or Christianity. Can they love God? Can they feel they are divine? Can they feel others are divine too? Can they deal with one another as divine beings do? How do really spiritual people interact with one another? Take a look at this instance:[52]

Manmatha Nath Ghosh writes in his reminiscences of Sri Ramakrishna: After I was married I could not visit the Master, as I had to go here and there looking for a job. At last I secured a position with Rally Brothers, but my monthly salary was so small that I could not afford to hire a carriage to go to the office. I had to walk back and forth from our house on Beadon Street to the office in Dharmtala via Geratala. One evening as I was passing by the Geratala mosque, I heard the loud prayer of a Muslim fakir: ‘O my beloved, please come! Please come, O my beloved!’ he was repeating this prayer with love and longing as tears rolled down his cheeks. Suddenly, I saw Sri Ramakrishna climb down from a hired carriage and rush up to the fakir. The two embraced each other. This incident happened when the Master was returning from Kalighat after visiting the Divine Mother there. What a wonderful sight it was!

The leaders of this movement ought to listen to the following words of the great Swami from whom they too claim their descent and inspiration:

Each nation has its own peculiar method of work. Some work through politics, some through social reforms, and some through other lines. With us, religion is the only ground along which we can move. The Englishman can understand even religion through politics. Perhaps the American can understand even religion through social reforms. But the Hindu can understand even politics when it is given through religion; sociology must come through religion, everything must come through religion. For that is the theme, the rest are the variations in the national life-music.[53]

The purpose and intent of what I have to say to you is this, that I have found it possible in my life to worship all of them, and to be ready for all that are yet to come. A mother recognizes her son in any dress in which he may appear before her; and if one does not do so, I am sure she is not the mother of that man. Now, as regards those of you that think that you understand Truth and Divinity and God in only one Prophet in the world, and not in any other, naturally, the conclusion which I draw is that you do not understand Divinity in anybody; you have simply swallowed words and identified yourself with one sect, just as you would in party politics, as a matter of opinion; but that is no religion at all. There are some fools in this world who use brackish water although there is excellent sweet water nearby, because, they say, the brackish-water well was dug by their father. Now, in my little experience I have collected this knowledge – that for all the devilry that religion is blamed with, religion is not at all in fault: no religion ever persecuted men, no religion ever burnt witches, no religion ever did any of these things. What then incited people to do these things? Politics, but never religion; and if such politics takes the name of religion, whose fault is that?[54]

So, when each man stands and says ‘My Prophet is the only true Prophet,’ he is not correct – he knows not the alpha of religion. Religion is neither talk, nor theory, nor intellectual consent. It is realization in the heart of our hearts; it is touching God; it is feeling, realizing that I am a spirit in relation with the Universal Spirit and all Its great manifestations. If you have really entered the house of the Father, how can you have seen His children and not known them? And if you do not recognize them, you have not entered the house of the Father. The mother recognizes her child in any dress and knows him however disguised. Recognize all the great, spiritual men and women in every age and country, and see that they are not really at variance with one another. Wherever there has been actual religion – this touch of the Divine, the soul coming in direct sense-contact with the Divine – there has always been a broadening of the mind which enables it to see the light everywhere. Now, some Mohammedans are the crudest in this respect, and the most sectarian. Their watchword is: ‘There is one God, and Mohammed is His Prophet.’ Everything beyond that not only is bad, but must be destroyed forthwith; at a moment’s notice, every man or woman who does not exactly believe in that must be killed; everything that does not belong to this worship must be immediately broken; every book that teaches anything else must be burnt. From the Pacific to the Atlantic, for five hundred years blood ran all over the world. That is Mohammedanism! Nevetheless, among these Mohammedans, wherever there has a philosophic man, he was sure to protest against these cruelties. In that he showed the touch of the Divine and realized a fragment of the truth; he was not playing with his religion; for it was not his father’s religion he was talking, but spoke the truth direct like a man.”[55]

“Could the gist of this mission of yours be summed up in a few words? Is it comparative religion you want to preach?”

It is really the philosophy of religion, the kernel of all its outward forms. All forms of religion have an essential and a non-essential part. If we strip from them the latter, there remains the real basis of all religion, which all forms of religion possess in common. Unity is behind them all. We may call it God, Allah, Jehovah, the Spirit, Love; it is the same unity that animates all life, from its lowest form to its noblest manifestation in man. It is on this unity that we need to lay stress, whereas in the West, and indeed everywhere, it is on the non-essential that men are apt to lay stress. They will fight and kill each other for these forms, to make their fellows conform. Seeing that the essential is love of God and love of man, this is curious, to say the least.

“I suppose a Hindu could never persecute.”

He never yet has done so; he is the most tolerant of all the races of men. Considering how profoundly religious he is, one might have thought that he would persecute those who believe in no God. The Jains regard such belief as sheer delusion, yet no Jain has ever been persecuted. In India the Mohammedans were the first who ever took the sword. [56]

For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam – Vedanta brain and Islam body – is the only hope. I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body.[57]

Can these words of the great Prophet of the modern age be in vain? We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best.[58]

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[1] World Hindu Congress-2018 was attended by 2,500 Hindus from 60 countries. It was graced by 220 speakers, including several high-achievers and experts from the world of economy, education, politics, social work, media, and blessed by revered spiritual & religious heads. But, most of all, it was the vibrant energy of the delegates traveling from far & wide and their cross-domain networking that made WHC 2018 such a unique & enriching event. It was indeed a fitting tribute to the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s historic address to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago.

Dhanyavaad for your support and encouragement. It is this engagement of the global Hindu community that allows WHC to act as a global platform for Hindus to connect, share ideas, inspire one another, and impact the common good.

The theme of WHC 2018 was Sumantrite Suvikrante – Think Collectively, Achieve Valiantly.

[2] World Hindu Congress opens with a resounding call for unity

With a backdrop of a life-size statue of Swami Vivekananda, to the traditional clarion sound of the conch, the second World Hindu Congress attended by 2,500 Hindus from 60 countries had a resounding start  on Friday, 7th September 2018 at the Westin Lombard York Town Center in Chicago. It ended on 9th September 2018.

With luminaries from spiritual, educational, business, and political walks of life among the invited speakers, the message of Hindus coming together for the common good, with a sense of unity, reverberated the grand hall even as Swami Vivekananda’s historic speech to the World Parliament of Religions did 125 years ago at the nearby Art Institute of Chicago.

Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from Bharat, addressed the congress on the theme drawn from the Mahabharat, “Think collectively, Act Valiantly.”

Bhagwat highlighted the need for such an action now and how Hindus should work together.

“It is an opportune moment. We have stopped our descent. We are contemplating how to ascend. We are not an enslaved, downtrodden nation. People are in dire need of our ancient wisdom,” Bhagwat said.

In Hindu Dharma even a pest is not killed, but controlled. “Hindus don’t live to oppose anybody. We even allow the pests to live. There are people who may oppose us. You have to tackle them without harming them,” Bhagwat said.

“Our universal values now called Hindu values lead to the welfare of the individual, the society, the nature and the environment. It is the duty of Hindus to remind the world, the universal values from time to time.

This duty of dharma to human beings should be performed till the world exists and thus, Hindu dharma will also exist till the world exists. Hindus know the basic values, but have forgotten to practice them.”

Stressing the need for unity, Bhagwat said, “If a lion is alone, wild dogs can invade and destroy the lion. We must not forget that.”

“We want to make the world better. We have no aspiration of dominance. Our influence is not a result of conquest or colonization.”

Bhagwat said a sense of idealism is good and described himself not as “anti-modern,” but as “pro-future.” He sought to describe Hindu dharma as “ancient and post-modern.”

Hindu society will prosper only when it works as a society, he said.

One of the key values to bring the whole world in to a team is to have controlled ego and learn to accept the consensus. For example, Sri Krishna and Yudhishtra never contradicted each other, Bhagwat said.

In this context, he alluded to the war and politics in the Hindu epic Mahabharat, and said politics cannot be conducted like a meditation session, and it should be politics.

“To work together, we have to accept the consensus. We are in a position to work together,” Bhagwat said. He urged the conference attendees to discuss and evolve a methodology to implement the idea of working collectively, “Think Collectively, Act Valiantly.” (from the official website of World Hindu Conference – 2018)

[3] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/now-controversy-over-book-on-vivekananda/article25280978.ece; The book is ‘Swami Vivekanand’ written by Shubhada Athawale-Pathak, published by Bharatiya Vichar Sadhana, an affiliate of RSS. On Pg: 12-13 of the book, it says, “Swami Vivekanand always expressed displeasure over the decreasing number of Hindus in the past few decades. He had also made a point about bringing all those Hindus who were converted by Muslims and Christians back to their original Religion. Our ancestors fought to save the religion in the past. According to Swami Vivekanand’s theory, if non-Hindus continue to trouble, then we have to show the killer instinct.” This book has been listed as miscellaneous reading material by the Maharashtra Education Department under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan.

[4] Nationalistic & religious lectures by Sw. Vivekananda: condensed & retold by Swami Tapasyananda: Advaita Ashrama: Pg: 1

[5] I wish to mention an interesting incident here. Long ago, when I was a member of the Vivekananda Balaka Sangha, Bangalore Ramakrishna Ashrama, Revered Swamiji-in-Charge was explaining this incident to us during a Sunday morning class. We were some 60-odd youths in the group. He read out that the audience had clapped for two minutes continuously. We did not, obviously, register the gravity of the incident. So he asked us to start clapping and started keeping time on his watch, saying that he would indicate to us when two minutes would be over. We could not continue for over 40 seconds! The initial enthusiasm started dying down after about a minute. When the two minutes were finally over, there were hardly ten hands clapping!

[6] Swami Vivekananda in the West – New discoveries: Vol-6: Sister Gargi: Advaita Ashrama: Pg: 155

[7] Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda: Swami Vivekananda as I saw him: Sister Christine: Chapter: Swami in Detroit-1896

[8] Ibid: Chapter: Teaching at Thousand Island Park

[9] Sri Sarada Devi – Her Divine Play: Swami Chetanananda: Pp: 662-63

[10] Complete Works: Vol-5: Epistles: XVII: to Alasinga Perumal on 27th September 1894.

[11] See also Complete Works: Vol-6: Epistles: CXXXII: to Swami Akhandananda on 30th July 1897: “Do you mean to say I am born to live and die one of those caste-ridden, superstitious, merciless, hypocritical, atheistic cowards that you find only amongst the educated Hindus? I hate cowardice; I will have nothing to do with cowards or political nonsense. I do not believe in any politics. God and truth are the only politics in the world, everything else is trash….. Do not mix in politics etc., nor have any connection with them. At the same time you need not have any quarrel with anybody. You must put your body, mind, and all you have to any work you do.

[12] Although he did not use these very words, but the implication was very much there in his addresses at Chicago. Elsewhere, he uttered these very words; for instance, Cf: Footnote #56 below

[13] Complete Works: Vol-1: Addresses at The Parliament of Religions: Buddhism, the fulfilment of Hinduism delivered on 26th September, 1893

[14] Complete Works: Vol-5: Epistles: V: to Alasinga Perumal on 2nd November 1893

[15] Complete Works: Vol-5: Epistles: XXI: to Alasinga Perumal on 27th October, 1894

[16] Complete Works: Introduction: Our Master and his message: by Sister Nivedita

[17] Complete Works: Vol-7: Epistles: XXXII: to members of Alambazar Math on 27th April 1896

[18] Complete Works: Vol-5: Interviews: India and England: (in the India, 1896) by a reporter named C.S.B

[19] Complete Works: Vol-7: Inspired Talks: entry on August 5, 1895

[20] In his lectures, Swami Vivekananda mentions at least one such complete change in the past which is a deviation so vast that it is mind-boggling to imagine. He says that Hindus were all beef-eaters, once upon a time. Due to the changes that Buddha introduced into the Hindu society, this habit, which was so pervasive as to define a Hindu, has completely disappeared, and today, if there is anyone trait common to all Hindus, it is this – they will never eat beef! Swamiji traces this habit to the historical fact of Buddha demolishing the ancient ceremonials of the Karma Kanda of the Vedas in Hindu society: But, you see, what once dies never comes back to life, and those ceremonials of [Hinduism] never came back to life. You will be astonished if I tell you that, according to the old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions he must sacrifice a bull and eat it. That is disgusting now. However they may differ from each other in India, in that they are all one — they never eat beef. The ancient sacrifices and the ancient gods, they are all gone; modern India belongs to the spiritual part of the Vedas.

[21] Complete Works: Vol-5: Interviews: India and England: (in the India, 1896) by a reporter named C.S.B

[22] ibid

[23] Cf: Complete Works: Vol-1: Karma Yoga: What is duty?: Later on we shall find that even this idea of duty undergoes change, and that the greatest work is done only when there is no selfish motive to prompt it. Yet it is work through the sense of duty that leads us to work without any idea of duty; when work will become worship — nay, something higher — then will work be done for its own sake. We shall find that the philosophy of duty, whether it be in the form of ethics or of love, is the same as in every other Yoga — the object being the attenuating of the lower self, so that the real higher Self may shine forth — the lessening of the frittering away of energies on the lower plane of existence, so that the soul may manifest itself on the higher ones. This is accomplished by the continuous denial of low desires, which duty rigorously requires. The whole organization of society has thus been developed, consciously or unconsciously, in the realms of action and experience, where, by limiting selfishness, we open the way to an unlimited expansion of the real nature of man.

[24] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Chapter: Advice to Pundit Shashadhar: Entry on Monday, 30th June 1884

[25] There are some versions of history which say that internecine struggles between the Brahmins and Kshatriyas often led the Brahmins to “invite” foreigners to topple the Kshatriya rulers. Most of the foreign invasions till the 11th century were of this nature. They all came from across the North-west borders of India. In fact, the tribes living in those regions must have been mercenaries, ‘guns for hire’. The Brahmins had no trouble in dealing with foreigners since they had a wonderful tool in their Caste system of co-opting the invading foreigner directly into the Kshatriya Caste and integrating him and his companions into their society. This arrangement went on fine till the 11th century. After the advent of Prophet Mohammad, these mercenary tribes had converted themselves to Islam. So, from then onwards, when the same mercenaries were invited, the same old people with a new, vigorous faith arrived and the Brahmins could not contain them!

Please see: Complete Works: Vol-4: Translations: Prose: MODERN INDIA: Moreover, it, the Brahmanya; power, solely devoting itself to the easy means to dupe ignorant barbarians, brought into vogue mysterious rites and ceremonies backed by its new Mantras and the like; and in doing so, itself lost its former wisdom, its former vigour and vitality, and its own chaste habits of long acquirement. Thus it turned the whole Âryâvarta into a deep and vast whirlpool of the most vicious, the most horrible, the most abominable, barbarous customs; and as the inevitable consequence of countenancing these detestable customs and superstitions, it soon lost all its own internal strength and stamina and became the weakest of the weak. What wonder that it should be broken into a thousand pieces and fall at the mere touch of the storm of Mussulman invasions from the West! That great Brahmanya power fell — who knows, if ever to rise again?

The resuscitation of the priestly power under the Mussulman rule was, on the other hand, an utter impossibility. The Prophet Mohammed himself was dead against the priestly class in any shape and tried his best for the total destruction of this power by formulating rules and injunctions to that effect. Under the Mussulman rule, the king himself was the supreme priest; he was the chief guide in religious matters; and when he became the emperor, he cherished the hope of being the paramount leader in all matters over the whole Mussulman world. To the Mussulman, the Jews or the Christians are not objects of extreme detestation; they are, at the worst, men of little faith. But not so the Hindu. According to him, the Hindu is idolatrous, the hateful Kafir; hence in this life he deserves to be butchered; and in the next, eternal hell is in store for him. The utmost the Mussulman kings could do as a favour to the priestly class — the spiritual guides of these Kafirs — was to allow them somehow to pass their life silently and wait for the last moment. This was again sometimes considered too, much kindness! If the religious ardour of any king was a little more uncommon, there would immediately follow arrangements for a great Yajna by way of Kafir-slaughter!

On one side, the royal power is now centred in kings professing a different religion and given to different customs. On the other, the priestly power has been entirely displaced from its influential position as the controller and lawgiver of the society. The Koran and its code of laws have taken the place of the Dharma Shâstras of Manu and others. The Sanskrit language has made room for the Persian and the Arabic. The Sanskrit language has to remain confined only to the purely religious writings and religious matters of the conquered and detested Hindu, and, as such, has since been living a precarious life at the hands of the neglected priest. The priest himself, the relic of the Brahmanya power, fell back upon the last resource of conducting only the comparatively unimportant family ceremonies, such as the matrimonial etc., and that also only so long and as much as the mercy of the Mohammedan rulers permitted.

In the Vedic and the adjoining periods, the royal power could not manifest itself on account of the grinding pressure of the priestly power.

[26] It would be interesting to study the Islamic analysis of Akbar. One wonders whether the Islamic scholars would call him Akbar the Great. In his attempts to govern India, he went on to float a new religion! What could be a greater apostasy than that!

[27] Take for instance the followers of Guru Nanak. The 10 Gurus would be scandalized if anyone told them they were not Hindus. But, the Hindu society refused to accept them since they could not determine as to which Caste these followers of Nanak would belong to. This led to a social impasse, which was finally regularized by the British in their Census as Sikhism, a separate religion!

[28] Dharma

[29] Artha

[30] Kama

[31] Moksha

[32] RSS had advocated this Hindu stance right from the beginning i.e. from 1940s. But we can locate the permeation of this idea into the popular mindscape of India from 1990s onwards.

[33]…on the one hand, there was the political jealousy between the priests and the kings.Complete Works: Vol-3: Buddhistic India: California: 1900

[34] Complete Works: Vol-5: Interviews: India and England: (in the India, 1896) by a reporter named C.S.B

[35] Complete Works: Vol-5: Epistles: IV: to Alasinga Perumal on 20th August, 1893

[36] Complete Works: Vol-1: Addresses at The Parliament of Religions: Buddhism, the fulfilment of Hinduism

[37] Complete Works: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: The Mission of the Vedanta: Kumbakonam

[38] Complete Works: Vol-3: Unity, the goal of Religion: New York, 1896

[39] Cf: Complete Works: Vol-2: Jnana-Yoga: Maya and the evolution of the conception of God: in London, 20th October 1896: We, in India, allowed liberty in spiritual matters, and we have a tremendous spiritual power in religious thought even today. You (in the West) grant the same liberty in social matters, and so have a splendid social organization. We have not given any freedom to the expansion of social matters, and ours is a cramped society. You have never given any freedom in religious matters but with fire and sword have enforced your beliefs, and the result is that religion is a stunted, degenerated growth in the European mind. In India, we have to take off the shackles from society; in Europe, the chains must be taken from the feet of spiritual progress. Then will come a wonderful growth and development of man.

[40] The Bible – New Testament: Gospel according to St. Matthew: 22:21

[41] Complete Works: Vol-6: Conversations & Dialogues: I: by Sharatchandra Chakravarty

[42] Complete Works: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: The Mission of the Vedanta: Kumbakonam

[43] ibid

[44] Complete Works: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: Calcutta Lecture

[45] Complete works: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: Vedanta in its application to Indian Life: Madras

[46] ibid

[47] ibid

[48] Complete Works: Vol-8: My life & mission: California, on 27th January 1900

[49] Complete Works: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: Vedanta in its application to Indian life: delivered at Madras

[50] Complete Works: Vol-8: Buddha’s message to the World: San Francisco, on 18th March 1900

[51] Complete Works: Vol-5: Interviews: India and England: (in the India, 1896) by a reporter named C.S.B

[52] Ramakrishna as we saw him: Ed: Swami Chetanananda: Advaita Ashrama: Pg: 372

[53] Complete Works: Vol-3: Lectures from Colombo to Almora: Calcutta Lecture

[54] Complete Works: Vol-4: The Great Teachers of the World: California, 3rd February 1900

[55] ibid

[56] Complete Works: Vol-5: Interviews: India and England: (in the India, 1896) by a reporter named C.S.B

[57] Complete Works: Vol-6: Epistles: CXLII: to Mohammed Sarfaraz Husain on 10th June, 1898

[58] ibid

Harmony of Religions – How & Why

Swami Vivekananda attended the World Parliament on Religions in Chicago from 11th September 1893 to 27th September 1893. This year we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of this event all over the world.

By far the greatest contribution of Swami Vivekananda through his participation in the Chicago World Parliament was his introduction of the life-giving concept of ‘Harmony of Religions’ to the thought-current of the world.

It is the nature of human beings to segregate themselves into groups based on identities. We have language, religion, race, geography, nationality, caste, class, and many more identities around which we consider ourselves one with some people and different from others. Of all these identities, the strongest seems to be the identity based on religion. History has shown us that religion is a terrific binding force. Religion also works as an insurmountable dividing force! The great thinker George Carlin once said that more people have been killed by wrongly answering the ‘God question’ than for any other reason in human history!

Religion is the vehicle by which the human soul evolves. Every religion will have a sacred book, which contains the wisdom that God revealed to His Chosen Messenger. God reveals a particular form of Himself to the Messenger. The Messenger then works out a set of activities called ‘Ritual’ by following which any ordinary person can also evolve spiritually. This Chosen Messenger will be considered the founder of that religion. This is the general scheme through which religions operate in our world.

A person becomes a part of a religion when he or she accepts that particular Book, that particular Messenger and that particular form of God revealed through that Book and Messenger. Since this scheme has indeed come down from God directly in each case, if one participates sincerely in it, one undoubtedly makes spiritual progress. This is seen in every religion. Where does the problem arise from, then?

Swami Vivekananda explains this through a beautiful story. [1]

A frog lived in a well. It had lived there for a long time. It was born there and brought up there, and yet was a little, small frog. Of course the evolutionists were not there then to tell us whether the frog lost its eyes or not, but, for our story’s sake, we must take it for granted that it had its eyes, and that it every day cleansed the water of all the worms and bacilli that lived in it with an energy that would do credit to our modern bacteriologists. In this way it went on and became a little sleek and fat. Well, one day another frog that lived in the sea came and fell into the well.

“Where are you from?”

“I am from the sea.”

“The sea! How big is that? Is it as big as my well?” and he took a leap from one side of the well to the other.

“My friend,” said the frog of the sea, “how do you compare the sea with your little well?” Then the frog took another leap and asked, “Is your sea so big?”

“What nonsense you speak, to compare the sea with your well!”

“Well, then,” said the frog of the well, “nothing can be bigger than my well; there can be nothing bigger than this; this fellow is a liar, so turn him out.”

That has been the difficulty all the while.

I am a Hindu. I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world. I have to thank you of America for the great attempt you are making to break down the barriers of this little world of ours, and hope that, in the future, the Lord will help you to accomplish your purpose.

This is a famous, old story in India. The Sanskrit term used for that frog in the well is ‘Kupa-manduka’. This mentality of the frog in the well is something that is fundamental to all human thinking. This kind of thinking is natural to us. Unless we are given special education, we are unable to correct this anomaly in our mental make-up. In fact the ancient Indian logicians termed this fundamental anomaly in human thinking as ‘Kupa-manduka-nyaya’.

How can this inherent fault in our thinking be corrected? Let us answer this question a little later.

First of all, we must understand that this kind of myopic thinking is actually a necessity for all of us. The reason why all of us have this kind of short-sightedness is because it has helped us in our evolution. It is an evolutionary necessity. In the beginning of our spiritual life, we need this kind of unquestioning faith in our beliefs. Others may say we are wrong. But, we should believe that what we believe is the final Truth. This concept is called ‘Nishta’. Unless we have Nishta, we can never grow. If we develop catholicity too early in our lives, our own spiritual life will never develop. One particular idea of God, religion, Self, Guru and Scripture protects us from confusion in the beginning of our spiritual life. But, when we have used this Nishta and achieved some amount of inner development, we should accommodate other views of God and paths to God too. That is why Swamiji said, ‘It is good to be born in a church, but it is bad to die in a church.’ We need to outgrow the bindings of religion, as we mature.

What happens if we do not correct this fault? Sri Ramakrishna paints an artless picture in one conversation as follows:

Some people indulge in quarrels, saying, ‘One cannot attain anything unless one worships our Krishna’, or, ‘Nothing can be gained without the worship of Kali, our Divine Mother’, or, ‘One cannot be saved without accepting the Christian religion.’ This is pure dogmatism. The dogmatist says, ‘My religion alone is true, and the religions of others are false.’ This is a bad attitude. God can be reached by different paths. Further, some say that God has form and is not formless. Thus they start quarrelling. A Vaishnava quarrels with a Vedantist. [2]

Intense hatred develops between two well-meaning people because of this fault. While forced inter-religious conversions and religious fundamentalism have always been the outcome of this dogmatic view, the problem has taken a whole new dimension in the present age.

In the general scheme of the spiritual development of human beings, there is actually no need for this concept of harmony of religions. That is why for thousands of years of human history, this concept never came up. The previous Avataras and Prophets did not preach this concept with the force that Sri Ramakrishna imparted to it.

Of course, serious students of religion will know that even in the past, whenever and wherever people of different religions met and interacted on a daily basis, attempts at harmonizing the religions have occurred. Take for example, the Bhagavad Gita,[3] or the Sufi school of Islam.

But the scale and speed of the present development is phenomenal. The present developments in the world, such as industrialization and globalization have brought huge swathes of people of different religions in close contact with one another. Till recently, people were confined to their geographies and did not interact much with people of another religion or country. Hence the clash of identities was never a serious issue. But, in the present age, the clash of identities has become a very serious issue. When we interact closely with people of other religions, regions, races, etc, a dilution of our identities occurs. These international interactions on an unprecedented scale have started bringing out deep insecurities in us. Hence, even the common man needs to be educated in this concept of harmony of religions, for his own survival, and for peace in the world.

For a long time in our world’s history, religion served an individual’s spiritual needs. Hence deep knowledge of the philosophy of one’s own religion or of other religions, or deep knowledge of the psychology of spiritual development of man was not necessary. Sri Ramakrishna says in a conversation: “Who can fully know the infinite God? And what need is there of knowing the Infinite? Having attained this rare human birth, my supreme need is to develop love for the Lotus Feet of God. If a jug of water is enough to remove my thirst, why should I measure the quantity of water in a lake? I become drunk on even half a bottle of wine – what is the use of my calculating the quantity of liquor in the tavern? What need is there of knowing the Infinite? [4] This attitude sufficed for a long time, when countries were not connected well, and the majority of people in the world lived their entire lives confined to their place of birth. Modern developments have brought enormous populations in contact with one another. Obviously, their identities clash and create a potentially dangerous situation. It was to address this urgent need of the present age that the compassionate Lord incarnated as Sri Ramakrishna and delivered this message of the harmony of religions.

Let us now try to answer the question we raised: How can we correct this inherent fault in our thinking? There are two ways in which this fault can be corrected, according to Sri Ramakrishna.

Let us look at the first method that Sri Ramakrishna prescribes for us to correct this inherent fault in us.

Genuine spiritual growth is required. Intellectual understanding is not religion. Experience alone is religion. In religion, experience comes by doggedly holding onto one particular aspect of God that appeals to us, and making that aspect real in our lives. Once we see God face-to-face, in that particular aspect, God will Himself clarify this issue for us. This is Sri Ramakrishna’s confirmed opinion. Let me read out a small passage from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna to you:[5]

With sincerity and earnestness one can realize God through all religions. The Vaishnavas will realize God, and so will the Saktas, the Vedantists, and the Brahmos. The Mussalmans and Christians will realize Him too. All will certainly realize God if they are earnest and sincere.

One can rightly speak of God only after one has seen Him. He who has seen God knows really and truly that God has form and that He is formless as well. He has many other aspects that cannot be described.

Once some blind men chanced to come near an animal that someone told them was an elephant. They were asked what the elephant was like. The blind men began to feel its body. One of them said the elephant was like a pillar; he had touched only its leg. Another said it was like a winnowing-fan; he had touched only its ear. In this way the others, having touched its tail or belly, gave their different versions of the elephant. Just so, a man who has seen only one aspect of God limits God to that alone. It is his conviction that God cannot be anything else.”

 (To the Goswami) “How can you say that the only truth about God is that He has form? It is undoubtedly true that God comes down to earth in a human form, as in the case of Krishna. And it is true as well that God reveals Himself to His devotees in various forms. But it is also true that God is formless; He is the Indivisible Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute. He has been described in the Vedas both as formless and as endowed with form. He is also described there both as attributeless and as endowed with attributes.

Do you know what I mean? Satchidananda is like an infinite ocean. Intense cold freezes the water into ice, which floats on the ocean in blocks of various forms. Likewise, through the cooling influence of bhakti, one sees forms of God in the Ocean of the Absolute. These forms are meant for the bhaktas, the lovers of God. But when the Sun of Knowledge rises, the ice melts; it becomes the same water it was before. Water above and water below, everywhere nothing but water. Therefore a prayer in the Bhagavata says: ‘O Lord, Thou hast form, and Thou art also formless. Thou walkest before us, O Lord, in the shape of a man; again, Thou hast been described in the Vedas as beyond words and thought.’

But you may say that for certain devotees God assumes eternal forms. There are places in the ocean where the ice doesn’t melt at all. It assumes the form of quartz.

What a wonderful explanation this is! So simple and clear! We know so little and yet we make generalizations; and then we impose our faulty generalizations on others, who again are making the same mistake! So, there is no end of confusion. That is why Swamiji once said in a lecture,[6]When next you hear a man delivering great intellectual lectures against this worship of God, get hold of him and ask him what is his idea of God, what he means by ‘omnipotence’, and ‘omniscience’, and ‘omnipresent love’, and so forth, beyond the spelling of the words. He means nothing, he cannot formulate an idea, he is no better than the man in the street who has not read a single book. That man in the street, however, is quiet and does not disturb the world, while the other man’s arguments cause disturbance. He has no actual perception, and both are on the same Religion is realization, and you must make the sharpest distinction between talk and realization. What you perceive in your soul is realization.

In another lecture, Swamiji said,[7]Curiously enough the vast majority of mankind thinks, especially at the present time, that no such perception is possible in religion, that religion can only be apprehended by vain arguments. Therefore we are told not to disturb the mind by vain arguments. Religion is a question of fact, not of talk. We have to analyze our own souls and to find what is there. We have to understand it and to realize what is understood. That is religion. No amount of talk will make religion.

So, the first method of correcting the fault of religious disharmony in ourselves is to speak of only what we see, and not of what we know from reading, hearing, or thinking. How rightly Sri Ramakrishna points out, “One can rightly speak of God only after one has seen Him. He who has seen God knows really and truly that God has form and that He is formless as well. He has many other aspects that cannot be described.

Why does Sri Ramakrishna say that one can rightly speak of God only after one has seen Him? That is because, after seeing Him, we can, if we wish, ask Him what this confusion is all about, and He Himself will explain it to us! It is that simple. Unless God Himself explains the reason for this confusion among various religions, we will never be able to solve it among ourselves effectively. Elsewhere, Sri Ramakrishna highlights this point much more clearly:[8]

Devotee: Sir, why are there so many different opinions about the nature of God? Some say that God has form, while others say that He is formless. Again, those who speak of God with form tell us about His different forms. Why all this controversy?

Master: A devotee thinks of God as he sees Him. In reality there is no confusion about God. God explains all this to the devotee if the devotee only realizes Him somehow. You haven’t set your foot in that direction. How can you expect to know all about God?

Listen to a story. Once a man entered a wood and saw a small animal on a tree. He came back and told another man that he had seen a creature of a beautiful red color on a certain tree. The second man replied: ‘When I went into the wood, I also saw that animal. But why do you call it red? It is green.’ Another man who was present contradicted them both and insisted that it was yellow. Presently others arrived and contended that it was grey, violet, blue, and so forth and so on. At last they started quarrelling among themselves. To settle the dispute they all went to the tree. They saw a man sitting under it. On being asked, he replied: ‘Yes, I live under this tree and I know the animal very well. All your descriptions are true. Sometimes it appears red, sometimes yellow, and at other times blue, violet, grey, and so forth. It is a chameleon. And sometimes it has no color at all. Now it has a color, and now it has none.’ In like manner, one who constantly thinks of God can know His real nature; he alone knows that God reveals Himself to seekers in various forms and aspects. God has attributes; then again He has none. Only the man who lives under the tree knows that the chameleon can appear in various colors, and he knows, further, that the animal at times has no color at all. It is the others who suffer from the agony of futile argument. Kabir used to say, ‘The formless Absolute is my Father, and God with form is my Mother.’ God reveals Himself in the form which His devotee loves most. His love for the devotee knows no bounds. It is written in the Purana that God assumed the form of Rama for His heroic devotee, Hanuman.

 Elsewhere Sri Ramakrishna makes the same point in another context. The great Indian Freedom fighter Ashwini Kumar Sen wrote a letter to M, the chronicler of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, describing his interaction with Sri Ramakrishna, wherein he asks the Master:[9]

Myself: What is the difference between a Hindu and a Brahmo ?

Master: There is not much difference. In the serenade we have here, one flutist plays a single note right along, while another plays various melodies. The Brahmos play one note, as it were; they hold to the formless aspect of God. But the Hindus bring out different melodies; that is to say they enjoy God in His various aspects.

The formless Deity and God with form may be likened to water and ice. The water freezes into ice. The ice melts into water through the heat of jnana. Water takes the form of ice through the cooling influence of bhakti. The Reality is one. People give It various names. Take the case of a lake with four landing-ghats on its four banks. People who draw water at one ghat call it ‘jal’, and those who draw it at the second ghat call it ‘pani’. At the third ghat they call it ‘water’, and at the fourth, ‘aqua’. But it is one and the same thing water.

So the first method that Sri Ramakrishna gives us is to establish an intimate relation with the Living God. From God Himself we will learn that all religions are true.

There is another method. We can accept the discoveries of Sri Ramakrishna regarding the different religions, we can try to understand the variety in terms of the language developed by Vedanta and mould our lives according to those ideas. It is something similar to understanding the discoveries of the laws of motion by Isaac Newton; let us believe his discoveries; let us accept his discoveries; then we can put his discoveries to good use in our lives.

It will be a long time before we can ourselves achieve genuine spiritual experiences and assimilate those experiences. If we wait for that time, there is a danger that we will kill ourselves in the meantime over our differences! An intellectual knowledge of the discoveries of Sri Ramakrishna could easily avoid that terrible outcome.

It is impossible for us not to interact with people of different religions till we ourselves achieve genuine spiritual growth and learn directly from our experience that all religions are true. Hence we need to accept the conclusions of Sri Ramakrishna in this respect. The enormous documentation and universal access to information of the present age easily allow us to educate ourselves regarding the different religions, intellectually. Armed with that knowledge, against the background of Sri Ramakrishna’s discoveries, we can protect our Nishta, while avoiding fanaticism in our interactions with people all over the world.

The way the world is moving is alright. Religions and matters of this world have been effectively separated all over the world today. This separation will increase in the days to come. Secularism in the true sense will take hold over all people of this world. Democracy will take hold over all peoples of the world. Religion then will become a truly personal matter. Religion will help man to grow spiritually. And that inner growth he will be able to pour out in service to others.

The greatest help we get in this intellectual exercise is from Vedanta, according to Swami Vivekananda. He points out: In Vedanta the chief advantage is that it was not the work of one single man; and therefore, naturally, unlike Buddhism, or Christianity, or Mohammedanism, the prophet or teacher did not entirely swallow up or overshadow the principles. The principles live, and the prophets, as it were, form a secondary group, unknown to Vedanta. The Upanishads speak of no particular prophet, but they speak of various prophets and prophetesses. The old Hebrews had something of that idea; yet we find Moses occupying most of the space of the Hebrew literature. Of course I do not mean that it is bad that these prophets should take religious hold of a nation; but it certainly is very injurious if the whole field of principles is lost sight of. We can very much agree as to principles, but not very much as to persons. The persons appeal to our emotions; and the principles, to something higher, to our calm judgement. Principles must conquer in the long run, for that is the manhood of man. Emotions many times drag us down to the level of animals. Emotions have more connection with the senses than with the faculty of reason; and, therefore, when principles are entirely lost sight of and emotions prevail, religions degenerate into fanaticism and sectarianism. They are no better than party politics and such things. The most horribly ignorant notions will be taken up, and for these ideas thousands will be ready to cut the throats of their brethren. This is the reason that, though these great personalities and prophets are tremendous motive powers for good, at the same time their lives are altogether dangerous when they lead to the disregard of the principles they represent. That has always led to fanaticism, and has deluged the world in blood. Vedanta can avoid this difficulty, because it has not one special prophet. It has many Seers, who are called Rishis or sages; Seers — that is the literal translation — those who see these truths, the Mantras.[10]

 The intellectual exercise of practicing harmony of religions will start by separating the principles of spirituality from the personalities who preached them in each religion. Once we do this exercise, we immediately come face to face with a fact, which Swami Vivekananda calls ‘The Religion’, also known as ‘Universal Religion’. This Universal Religion is composed of only the most generalized principles corresponding to the fundamental nature of man, God, and the world. It is wholly impersonal. When seen intellectually, we find that there is only one Religion all over the world. When that One Religion is applied to different geographies, different communities, different races, different periods of time, we get the variety in the world religions. Hence Swami Vivekananda declared:

We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best.[11]

*******************

[1] Why we disagree: Address at Parliament of Religions on 15th September, 1893

[2] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on March 11, 1883

[3] Cf: Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-4: Thoughts on Gita: “It was the author of the Gita who for the first time tried to harmonize these. He took the best from what all the sects then existing had to offer and threaded them in the Gita. But even where Krishna failed to show a complete reconciliation (Samanvaya) among these warring sects, it was fully accomplished by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in this nineteenth century”

[4] Ibid: Entry on October 28, 1882

[5] Ibid: Entry on March 11, 1883

[6] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-4: The Teacher Of Spirituality

[7] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-2: Realization: (Delivered in London, 29th October 1896)

[8] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on October 28, 1882

[9] Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Appendix-B: A Letter

[10] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-6: The Methods And Purpose Of Religion

[11] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-6: Epistles – Second Series: Written to Mohammed Sarfaraz Husain of Naini Tal from Almora on 10th June, 1898.

God experience: As joy to be shared in our multi-faith context

Revered Father Thomas D’Souza, Archbishop & Metropolitan of Calcutta, Revered Bishops of the six Dioceses of Bengal and Sikkim, Revered Provincials and Sisters, a very good morning to all of you. I thank Sr Anna Maria for introducing me in detail. I come from Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math. I run a Polytechnic College and two Skill Development Centers there.

I deal mainly with students and teachers. A couple of months ago, when Sr Anna Maria came to me in Belur Math and said that I would have to speak in a program in Asansol, I said ‘Yes’. I agreed because, Sister is Principal of a famous school in Chandan Nagar, and I conveniently assumed that it would be a program either for students or teachers. That is the only audience I am comfortable speaking to. Two days ago, I had some email correspondence with Sister where I asked her the composition of this audience, just to confirm my assumption. I was shocked when she wrote back that the audience would be Bishops, Provincials and Sisters of Bengal and Sikkim, and that there would be no students or teachers at all! I almost decided that I wouldn’t go. But then I thought, if I did that, Sister Anna Maria would be in a soup; where would she go for a speaker at the last minute! That is the only reason I am here today.

I do not presume I can teach anything here to an audience such as yours. Nor can I speak to you all about anything that you all don’t already know. While introducing me, Sr Anna Maria said that I had experienced God and that I would share the joy of my God experience with you all. I must tell you that I haven’t yet experienced God. I am on the path. I consider you all as my fellow travelers. I have learned some lessons along the path from my teachers. If I stand here today, it is only as a student, reporting back to his teachers all that he had learnt with their help.

Sister Anna Maria asked me to speak for two hours! I believe that will be a torture for both you and me, if I speak non-stop. So what I am going to do is something like this:

Scheme of today’s program:

08.30am – 9.15am              : Lecture on Comparative Religion

09.15am – 9.30am              : Break

09.30am – 10.30am           : Lecture on spirituality

10.30am – 11.00am           : Tea break

11.00am – 11.45am           : GD & reflection

11.45am – 12.30pm          : Feedback

Comparative Study of Religion

I will begin by speaking for about 45 minutes on an important topic ‘Comparative Study of Religion’. We shall begin by defining the term ‘God’. Of course, it is meaningless to define God. I cannot be so presumptuous. But, we ought to be clear about the meaning of this term ‘God’. All of us use this word. But do we mean the same thing?

Religion & God: Boon or bane?

Religion has a very interesting feature. Is religion a boon or a curse on us? The jury seems to be still out on that! The greatest good on humanity has come from religion. The worst experiences of humanity too have come from religion. Ask anyone to name 10 of the greatest persons to have walked on Earth and they will tell you the names of 10 Holy men. Ask them again to name the worst persons to walk on Earth and again, they will tell the names of the followers of these 10 greatest Holy men! Such is the bipolar nature of Religion.

The great radical thinker and stand-up comedian George Carlin put it very graphically. He says: Religion is the greatest blessing on mankind. It is also unfortunately the worst curse on mankind! More blood has been shed in the name of religion than for any other reason. History tells us that. More people have died because of giving the wrong answer to the God question in this world.

“Do you believe in God?”

“No.” Boom!

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes.”

“Do you believe in my God?”

“No.” Boom!!

That is how it is, really! You and I can be very good friends. Then I realize you don’t subscribe to my version of God. And that revelation instantly awakens hatred in me for you! All the deep friendship I had for you vanishes into thin air. Now it is a question of imposing my version of God on you. Or the other way out. So, we need to fight it out. The survivor’s version of God reigns supreme! That is the general history of all religion, everywhere, for you. I know, some people will say that they have never hurt anyone in the name of religion. Hindus and Jews are famous for saying that. But let us face facts. The blood is on all of us. All of us are equally guilty. All religions have persecuted non-believers of their version of God. All of us are guilty of having tried overtly or covertly to undermine and destroy religions other than our own. All of us are guilty of having destroyed places of worship of other religions. All of us are guilty of maligning the religious traditions, religious beliefs, and religious leaders of other religions.

Two aspects of Religion

It is against this background that comparative study of religion becomes so important for all of us. It is a new field of study; it began some 200 years ago; we found out that we can apply the rules of logic to religions and study them. Comparative Study of Religions is an intellectual exercise. We shall try to understand religions that we don’t belong to. We shall try to understand the ‘others’. Some may argue – we don’t know ourselves well, and why would we want to understand ‘others’? It is urgently required. There is too much energy being wasted in hating the ‘others’. Supposing we don’t know something; that ignorance happens to be the root of much mischief in our lives. Knowledge is redeeming. The ‘others’ that we hate, that we denigrate, will then turn out to be just like us. No difference; same as us. Right now, it doesn’t look so. But with some understanding, we shall see that is so.

We had a revered monk called Swami Subodhananda in Ramakrishna Mission. He would tell a beautiful story from his childhood. He and his many brothers and sisters were playing at home one day. They were making a lot of noise. Suddenly, the door opened and in came a person with a tiger’s mask. That scene petrified the young boy Subodhananda. When the kids had all become silent, the mask came off and his own mother stood there smiling! The Swami would say later, ‘Ever since, I realized that we should unmask the source of our fear, and we shall see our very own standing there!’

A comparative study of religions reveals that all religions have two aspects to them. One is the cultural aspect. The other is the spiritual aspect. Masses always follow the cultural aspects of religion. This is the popular version of the religion. It consists of certain rituals peculiar to that religion. It consists of rules and regulations about food, clothing, festivals, language and mythology. In this aspect, every religion will differ from every other religion. In fact, the differentiating aspect of religions is the cultural aspect. Hatred is the outcome of comparing the cultural aspects of religions. No, not just comparing; hatred arises when one person tries to judge the cultural aspects of another person’s religion; hatred arises when one person attempts to impose the cultural aspects of his own religion on another person from some other religion.

The other aspect, the spiritual aspect, is common to all religions. The strange part, the unfortunate part is that this aspect of religion appeals only to a handful, at any given point of time, in any given geography. The masses do not even recognize this aspect of religion, much less aspire for it. But, every religion has a rare few who manifest, who follow, who realize, and who personify this spiritual aspect of religion. Without an exception, every religion has such rare persons. And they all speak the same language, irrespective of which religion they originally belonged to. Listening to them, it is difficult to say which religion they belong to.

The famous Sufi saint Rabia was once asked by some people if she loved the Lord. She replied, “Yes; I love our Lord with all my heart and all my soul.” Then they asked her if she hated the Devil. Her famous reply signifies this spiritual aspect of religion, “My love for the Lord leaves me no time to hate the Devil.” Just look at this answer Rabia gave! How often do we base our self-identity on what we hate rather than on what we love!

Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer and philosopher wrote a beautiful book called ‘Twenty-three tales”. That book has an amazing story called ‘The Three Hermits’. All of you must have surely read that amazing story. A bishop and several pilgrims are travelling on a fishing boat from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery. During the voyage, the bishop engages the fishermen in conversation after overhearing them discuss a remote island nearby their course where three old hermits lived a Spartan existence focused on seeking ‘salvation for their souls.’ Several of the fisherman claim to have seen them once. The bishop then informs the captain that he wishes to visit the island. The captain attempts to dissuade him by saying “the old men are not worth your pains. I have heard say that they are foolish old fellows, who understand nothing, and never speak a word.” But the bishop insists, and the Captain steers the ship toward the island and subsequently sets off in a rowboat to visit where he is met ashore by the three hermits. The bishop informs the hermits that he has heard of them and of their seeking salvation. He inquires how they are seeking salvation and serving God, but the hermits say they do not know how, only that they pray, simply: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” Subsequently, the bishop acknowledges that they have a little knowledge but are ignorant of the true meaning of the doctrine and how properly to pray. He tells them that he will teach them “not a way of my own, but the way in which God in the Holy Scriptures has commanded all men to pray to Him” and proceeds to explain the doctrines of the incarnation and the Trinity. He attempts to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father”, but the simple hermits blunder and cannot remember the words – which compels the bishop to repeat the lesson late into the night. After he became satisfied that they had memorized the prayer, the bishop departed from the island leaving the hermits with the firm instruction to pray as he had taught them. The bishop then returned by the rowboat to the fisherman’s vessel anchored offshore to continue the voyage. While on board, the bishop notices that their vessel is being followed – at first thinking a boat was behind them but soon realizing that the three hermits had been running across the surface of the water “as though it were dry land.” The hermits catch up to the vessel as the captain stops the boat, and inform the bishop: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.” The bishop was humbled and replied to the hermits: “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” After which the hermits turned around and walked back to their island.

This is the spiritual aspect of religion. It is common to all religions of the world.

Cultural aspect of religion – a necessary evil

Why can’t we just stick to the spiritual aspect of religion? Since it is common to all religions, we all can agree to follow that aspect of religion only. It is so easy to ask questions. Answering them is next to impossible, sometimes!

When we engage in comparative study of religions, this is one question that comes up very quickly in most of us. But, the fun is – we simply cannot jump out of our own skin! It is impossible to renounce the cultural aspects of our religion. There seems to be personal preferences at play here. We all have common spiritual goals. We all also have our own preferences in how to reach that common goal. That ‘reaching’ is the cultural aspect. Goal can be common; in fact, goal is common. But is there a common path to that goal? That is the main question here. The innumerable nuances of the path, the infinite variety in the practices, the minute things of food, clothes, buildings, books, language, idols, articles of faith, mythology – these are what defines our religion. How can we renounce it? I like it this way. I like it this way. Why should I renounce it?

But the question arises, which is the correct path? Is mine the correct path? Or is yours the correct one? Ah! A million dollar question! There is no universal correct path in religion. It is personal preference that defines which path is meant for you, and which is meant for me. It is not even hereditary. My father’s path need not appeal to me at all!

As long as we all follow our own preferred paths sincerely, things are fine. There is a great job being performed by the cultural aspect of religion. It is the life, the heart, the engine, the motive power of religion. Beginners in any religion cannot afford to leave these cultural aspects. They are like the fences around the small plant. They protect the plant. Later on, when the plant grows into a huge tree, the fences have no meaning. Premature catholicity in religion is dangerous. Growth gets stunted, even stopped. In the beginning, we have to doggedly, fanatically, stick to our peculiarities of religion. Very soon, we are expected to grow out of these cultural aspects. The sad part is – all our lives we stick to the basic portions of religion. All cultural aspects of religion are supposed to catapult us to the common ground of spirituality. It is not happening. That is the crux of the problem. Anyway, we will deal with this idea later.

The problem arises when I try to impose my practices on you. What problem arises? You have perhaps not yet matured enough to let go of your ‘fences’. Before you have matured, I might try to transplant you! Your very existence seems threatened! You fight back.

I ask myself often, when one person imposes his religious practices on another, what are the possible scenarios? I can think of only two possible scenarios: Acceptance or Resistance. I am not dealing with indifference here, the atheists. They don’t have any problem. With the believers, there arise these problems, I have been explaining, upon imposing my view of God and religion on them. Suppose, the other guy accepts my view, no problem; all of us can live happily ever after. Problem comes when he resists my imposition. Then, we might have to fight; and the winner’s view prevails on everyone. (I assume we didn’t fight to death!)

A much more basic question: why do I feel the need to impose my version of religion on you? I think it is a very natural human tendency. Suppose I discover this wonderful restaurant which serves divine coffee. Won’t I drag all my friends there, one by one, and get them also to enjoy the wonderful taste of that coffee? Isn’t it natural to wish to share my joy with others?  But, am I concerned that my friend likes tea and not coffee? Further, if I do take a friend to the restaurant, get him the coffee, and he passes a light-hearted or derogatory comment on the coffee, and subsequently on my taste; what would be my reaction? What would be the future course of our friendship? I will start feeling that basic assumptions in my life are being questioned. Isn’t my liking correct? Isn’t there a universal standard of taste? If my taste is correct, how can an opposite taste be also correct?

Yet another fundamental question: which version of God and religion is the correct one? Where indeed do we get our version of God and religion? From the Book; every religion has one. The Christians have their Bible. The Muslims have their Koran. The Jews have their Talmud. The Hindus are yet to come to a consensus on which is their ‘The Book’, but the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads are hot contenders! And so on and so forth, the list goes. Every religion uses the definite article ‘The’ while talking about their holy scripture. All these books have their own copyrighted, patented, peculiar versions of God, creation, man, and the goal of human life. In every case, these ‘The Book’ are accompanied by many auxiliary books which prescribe the path that leads to the goal mentioned in those ‘The Book’. As long as you stick to one religion, there is a wonderful consistency in all of these. Trouble arises when you compare the ideas of one with the ideas of others.

So, associated with the comparative study of religions is another very interesting field called ‘Hermeneutics’, which deals with translation. It is not language translation. It is holistic. It is no use translating terms or words. Ideas have to be translated. There is the word, there is the meaning of that word, and there is the actual thing that the word tries to depict. Translations are required with respect to all three.

The great Sufi saint Jamaluddin Rumi mentions an amazing story in his book ‘Masnavi’. A merchant was walking on a road. He came across four gentlemen quarrelling. They were furiously arguing about something. He inquired what it was about. The situation was indeed very interesting. They were four businessmen, each from a different country – Persia, Arabia, Turkey and Greece. They had all partnered in a successful business deal and had made some profit. Now, they were arguing about how that money ought to be spent. The Persian wanted to buy some Angur with that money. The Arab insisted that unless some Inab was purchased with that money, he would be getting very angry. The Turk would kill anyone who didn’t want to buy some Uzum with that money. And the Greek petulantly insisted that some ripe Stafil be purchased with that money. They had reached a stalemate! That was when the merchant came across them. He was intrigued by the situation that had developed. You see, all these four persons, from different nations, from different cultural backgrounds, had sufficient translation powers to deal with one another and make some business profit. But, their translation powers were indeed very shallow. For, this merchant knew all four languages. And he understood that all of them were indicating the same thing, using four different words! All the words – Angur, Inab, Uzum and Stafil – mean Grapes![1]

Please observe one more interesting fact. We have now given the valuable information to the Persian, the Arab, the Turk and the Greek that grapes is what they want, no matter what word they use for it. Fine; but, when the Greek eats, he will still eat only Stafil, and not grapes or Angur or Inab or Uzum. Personal preferences are hard-wired into us. Suppose we insist on the Greek that he has to eat grapes and not Stafil, we will be robbing him of the joy of enjoying Stafil!

History tells us that many nations have en-masse adopted various religions at various times. For instance, take Europe. Before St. Peter went to Rome and preached Christianity, Europe did have religion. Where is it today? We don’t even know all the details of the Greek and Roman religion that preceded St. Peter in Europe. But the cultural aspects of Christianity took deep roots in Europe. We must always remember that Christianity was an oriental religion. It is easier for an Asian to adopt the cultural aspects of Christianity than it is for a European to do so. Yet, it struck deep, very deep roots in Europe. Later on, Islam spread to Europe. At one time, except for small pockets in Central Europe, the major portion of Europe had become Islamic. But, Islam did not strike roots there. Hence it was dislodged, again, later on by Christianity.

Take again the case of South-East Asia. At one point of time, a large portion of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos were Hindu. Then, they renounced Hinduism and adopted Buddhism, Islam or Christianity.

In all such cases, we find remnants of the deposed religion’s rituals, festivals, and social customs prevailing in the communities of that region. For instance, the concept of the Patron Saint in European Christianity is a remnant of the Roman religion prevalent in that region prior to the adoption of Christianity. The rituals associated with monarchy in Thailand are even today Hindu rituals.

A region may adopt a particular religion for any number of reasons. One such compelling reason is brute force, the power of the military. Another equally compelling reason is social and economic prestige. It is seen that the masses in a region decide that following a particular religion confers upon them social prestige and economic advantage. En-masse conversion occurs. Such conversions lead to important political outcomes only. However, in many such cases, the imposition of the cultural aspects of a religion did not lead to a flowering of the spiritual aspect of that religion in that region. We do not find holy men coming out of such communities. The cultural aspect of religion did not mature into blossoming of the spiritual aspect of that religion in that region. Can you name even one Islamic saint from Europe? Islam reigned supreme in Europe for several centuries! Can you name even one Hindu saint from South-east Asia? Not one!

The present usage of the word ‘God’ invariably leads to contradictions and confusion among us, as we have seen. I mean by that word, perhaps Mahadev Shiva, and you mean by that same word Jehovah. Now, these comparative religion guys seem to hint that my Mahadev Shiva and your Jehovah are the same! Somehow, that doesn’t satisfy me. I don’t know about you. It’s the same grapes and Stafil case all over again! How can Shiva and Jehovah be the same? Going further, even Allah and Ahura Mazda and the Buddha are the same as my Shiva and your Jehovah! What exactly do these guys mean when they say these are all the same? Somehow, this concept of divine equality seems to be counterintuitive.

The different meanings attached to the word ‘God’ fall under a continuum. There is a gradation in the meaning of that word. Let us collect all the different meanings of the word ‘God’ and study them. We then discover a pattern, a hierarchy, a gradation in the evolution of the meanings. One of the very first usages of this term referred to the incredible forces of Nature. We were awed by the sheer power of those forces. We called them ‘God’. Soon, we started asking ourselves, ‘if these forces exist, surely there must be someone who wields these powers.’ This gave rise to the concept of an owner of these incredible forces of Nature. First we had the zoomorphic God, which quickly graduated into an anthropomorphic God. Once we had the anthropomorphic God, we started considering him as the protector of our tribe or community. Higher than this, comes the conception of a Creator God. Once we had the Creator God, we soon climbed onto a Creator-Preserver-Destroyer God. Logic started entering into our conception in a big way now. We started asking how God can create this world out of nothing. Thus we came up with a conception of God as the efficient and material cause of this world. Up to this stage, the evolution of the conception of God seems to be logical. Suddenly we had a paradigm altering conception of God full of Love! This is paradigm altering because it is a revelation and not a logical outgrowth of the ideas we have been dealing with. The God Love is a Presence. And this revelation was given by a human being, just like us, and he was called variously as an Incarnation, Avatara, Prophet, Messenger or Messiah. Once we had this quantum jump in ideas, very soon we started conceiving of the Divine Presence in the heart of man. The final word in this wonderful framework of ideas was the conception of Unity of God and Man.

Take any religion. You will find this gradation of ideas concerning God. Even the pinnacle of this gradation is present in all religions. ‘I and my Father are one’; ‘Aham Brahmasmi’; ‘An – al – haq’; ‘I am the Buddha’.

Lateral thinking

You may have heard of a thinker called Edward De Bono. He has written some very good books on how man thinks. He identifies a technique called ‘lateral thinking’. Suppose you have four dots and you need to connect them with three lines. If you are allowed to use four lines, anyone can connect the dots. But, if we are to use only three lines, how do we connect the four dots? If we can extend ourselves beyond the four dots, not confining ourselves to only the four dots, then, using only three lines, we can indeed connect the four dots.

With regard to religion too, we need to use this technique. All of us have our four dots. We need to connect them in such a way that our four dots remain connected, but we restrict ourselves to preserving other peoples’ freedom too. We need to stretch our ideas a bit for this accommodation to take place. You must live. I too must live. We need not kill each other; neither at the idea level, nor at the physical level.

Respect diversity, but recognize the underlying unity

Let me come back to a question I raised sometime back in our deliberations: Why can’t we just stick to the spiritual aspect of religion? Why not divest our religions of all the cultural aspects all together? After all, these aspects divide us. Why not do away with them?

You know, we may not exactly divest ourselves of all the cultural aspects, but, most religions have a strange habit of ‘adapting’ to other cultures. We have seen that in history. Take the example of the Second Vatican Council. Right from Pope Pius X, followed by Pope Pius XII to Pope Paul VI, there has been a steady transition from the Latin liturgy to liturgy in vernaculars. The motive behind this idea is indeed grand. The common man in different countries must feel identified with the Christian rites. But, at what cost? Just look at the experiment conducted by Father Monchanin and Father Henri Le Seux. The latter even went up to the ridiculous stage of taking monastic vows as per Hindu tradition and assumed the name Swami Abhishiktananda. And he didn’t set up an Abbey; he set up an Ashrama! In that Ashrama, he instituted Arati for Jesus Christ, just as you have in Hindu Temples. Now, it is not that people don’t come to his Ashrama. They do come. But, what about their self-identity? Are they Christians or Hindus? No psalms or Gregorian chants in the Ashirvanam Ashrama; instead they have Bhajans, typical South Indian style! The dividing line between Christianity and Hinduism has worn so thin in that Ashrama, the followers associated there will certainly experience an identity crisis! We may have to avoid these experiments. We will be dealing with forces we do not fully understand, which may end up destroying us. I tell you this because, that is exactly what happened with Buddhism in India. India is the land of birth of this religion. In an effort to adapt itself to Hinduism, Buddhism made so many changes that in the end it lost all individuality and was finally absorbed into Hinduism! The Hindus made Buddha into one of their innumerable incarnations of God and that was the end of Buddhism! Later on, the Buddhists realized what had happened. Many attempts were made to revive that religion in India. But, Buddhism never really regained its life force in India.

Hence, it is most essential that we hold on firmly to the cultural aspects of our own religion. Else, in a few generations, we will end up losing our religion. But, we need not impose our views of religion on others. Please appreciate the dynamics at play here. When we try to impose our views on others, there will be resistance. So, we try to interpret our views as but a minor, but important variation of others’ religions. Thus starts a dangerous process of adaptation, of acculturation; a process described by the Buddha as ‘Upaya Kaushala’. Where does it lead to? Did the Buddha want that his religion should become extinct in the very land of its birth?

In a lighter vein, please read the following comic piece regarding ‘cultural adaptation’ and how it leads to loss of identity:

The European Commission has announced (of course, this was before Brexit!) an agreement that English will be the official language of the EU – rather than German. As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English Spelling had some room for improvement, and has accepted a 5-year phase-in of new rules which would apply to the language and reclassify it as Euro-English.

The agreed plan is as follows:

In year 1, the soft ‘c’ would replaced by the ‘s’.

Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard ‘c’ will be replaced by ‘k’. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan now have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome ‘ph’ is replaced by ‘f’. This will reduse ‘fotograf’ by 20%.

In the 3d year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible.

Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent ‘e’s in the language is disgrasful and they should eliminat them.

By year 4, peopl wil be reseptiv to lingwistik korektions such as replasing ‘th’ with ‘z’ and ‘w’ with ‘v’ (saving mor keyboard spas).

During ze fifz year, ze unesesary ‘o’ kan be dropd from vords kontaining ‘ou’ and similar changes vud of kors be applied to ozer kombinations of leters.

After zis fifz year, ve vil have a reli sensibil riten styl. Zer vil be no more trubls or difikultis and evrirum vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer.

Actually, never mind: that would be German after all!!!

Stay away from politics

Just as important as this issue of cultural adaptation, is another issue – stay away from politics. Do not mix religion and politics. If we mix the two, the resultant is too powerful a force, and none of us are capable of handling it. Please pardon me for saying this, but I believe that Jesus Christ died on the Cross, not just for redeeming man from his original sin as you all believe, but also to educate his children not to mix religion and politics. If Jesus Christ had continued his spiritual ministrations without giving an idea that he was King in the political sense of the term, I believe the Romans would have left him free. I believe, somehow the language Jesus Christ used, the complex political situation of that region during that period, the public perception of his message, all added up to give the idea that he was out to overthrow the Roman political power. And the end result was that the Romans ended up crucifying him. The Lord suffered this gruesome punishment to show us that even the Lord Incarnate cannot manage to mix politics and religion!

Man-centric conception of God

So, by stretching our own ideas of God and religion, we all need to evolve a Man-centric conception of God and religion. This is urgently needed. Else, we will destroy ourselves. Especially, we, the custodians of religion will have to do it as quickly as possible. If we continue the way we live and work and feel, we will end up frustrated with ourselves. We have given up our entire life to a search for God; but we are stuck with fighting others on trivial issues. If we do this for long, we will become hypocrites. Outwardly, we will have the strappings of a religious person, but inwardly we will start doubting the efficacy of God and religion. Imagine the validity of a God or a religion that cannot defend itself! Imagine the strength of a God or religion that requires me to survive!

So, a Man-centric conception of God is urgently required. It is already available in all religions. We need to popularize it, that’s all. What is this conception?

Religion expounds powerful ideas of God, creation, the world, its future, and about man. The focus is generally the conception of God. We need to focus on the conception of Man. You see, we can neither be sure of God, nor religion, nor philosophy. But we are all sure of our own existence. Why don’t we start with this wonderful fact? ‘We ourselves’ – that is the starting point of our religion. I shall attempt to know myself. This leads to an amazing development within me. The more I know who I am, the more I am able to understand you, my fellow human being, my neighbor, my brother. No, not just these, I gradually start to see that there was no ‘you’; it was all along ‘me’ that I saw out there as ‘you’. This is the outcome of divesting religion of its temporal aspects, and emphasizing the human-centric aspects.

Implications of this view

‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.’ This is Jesus Christ’s promise to mankind.[2] We come across this incredible statement in the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. Please note the use of the word ‘see’. Jesus doesn’t say that the pure of heart will believe in God; no; they will ‘see’ God. It is a most palpable experience, visceral. Our effort must therefore be, not just to believe in God, but to see God. It won’t do to say that I believe in the existence of God, or that I believe so-&-so is God. I must see God. That is the goal. If I haven’t seen God, nothing else is of any value, none of my theories, none of my thoughts, none of my beliefs, none of my actions. Let us not complicate things by trying to interpret this ‘seeing’ using our sophistry. That was the word Jesus Christ used. He came for simplifying religion. Let us not complicate it.

For as long as we haven’t yet seen God, let us be peaceful amongst others in this world. That is the reason Jesus Christ adds the following beatitude ‘Blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called the children of God.’ You see, Mother Teresa used to ask, “Do you know why we fight so much?” Then she would herself give the answer, “It is because we do not recognize that we belong to one another.” These are terrific words, really. Take for instance our hand. Would anyone here want to cut-off one’s own hand? No. Why not?  Because my hand belongs to me. Why would I damage something that belongs to me? Whereas that fellow over there, he doesn’t belong to me. I don’t see why I shouldn’t kill him!

So many flowering plants are there in this world, which is God’s garden. Why would we want to kill any of those plants? Each plant gives a different flower. But all of them are beautiful and serve one purpose of the other. Let us learn to enjoy this variety.

Spirituality

Like I said before, religion is ‘seeing’ God. Religion is realization. Unless we ‘see’ God, there is no question of experiencing God. Thoughts, beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, theories and feelings are not experience when it comes to God and religion!

I wish to explain the prevalent conceptions of Man in the world religions today before we go further on with our main subject of sharing God experience. There are mainly two different conceptions of Man in this world. One is the oriental view; the other is the occidental view. The occidental view is called the Dichotomous view of man, while the oriental view is called the Trichotomous view of man. The European and American view of man says man is composed of two components – the body and the mind. The Asian view of man says man is composed of three components – the body, the mind, and consciousness, that illumines both body and mind. The former view holds that consciousness is an outcome of the activities of the mind. These two views are not compatible. The philosophy of the New Testament is purely oriental. Jesus Christ was from Asia. Naturally he subscribed to the trichotomous view of man. It is present in his utterances. He deals with pure consciousness in many places. The word used is ‘Spirit’. The reason I raised this issue now is because our conception of God is closely connected to our conception of man. If we can conceive of man as Spirit, we can then conceive of God also as Spirit. Recall how Jesus Christ exhorts us to worship the Spirit by the Spirit in John 4:24.

Without meddling with unnecessary things, if we are sincere in our spiritual practices, as prescribed by our religion, we can indeed reach the supra-cultural realm of true spirituality. Sister Nivedita used to speak of an old lady who would pray in the Chapel every day, year after year. Then one day, when she was praying, the Verger of the Church awoke her from her prayer and said that it was time to go home. When she looked at that Verger, suddenly she saw that it was Jesus Christ himself that had spoken to her! That is ‘seeing’. Ever since she saw that every person was none other than Jesus Christ. All these years, she had mistaken people for people; from now on, she saw that there was only one person and that was Jesus Christ.

Monopoly on the Spirit

Which religion has a monopoly on spirituality? Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Muslims – who? All of them have produced people who have ‘seen’ God. Even if one such person has come out of a religion, that religion is true and has a valid reason to exist. Innumerable are the types of minds in this world. There is no meaning in saying my religion alone is true. Religion has only one reason for existing – can it produce a saint? If it does, it is valid.

Sometime back I raised the question of universality of spiritual practices. I said that there can be no universal spiritual practice. Each path to God will have its peculiarity, distinguishing it from all other paths. Each such path becomes a religion. There is however one component of spiritual practice that is common to all religions. That component is ‘renunciation of the senses’. The soul has to beat a retreat from the senses, no matter what religion it follows. Recall Jesus Christ’s clarion call: He who follows me can never walk in darkness (John 8:21) I personally love this statement of Jesus Christ. I remember this statement so well because it forms the opening sentence of that great book ‘The imitation of Christ’ by Thomas Kempis.

All religions prescribe this renunciation as a sine-qua-non for spiritual life. Hence, we need to go back to the roots of our spiritual practices. Poverty, Chastity and Obedience; no sooner do we become lax on this front do we start facing problems in our lives. Please listen to a story:

The Pope wanted a good monk to train his novices, a genuine, devout and learned monk who could look after his Pontifical Seminary in the Vatican. He wrote to the Grand Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. When the Papal Bull arrived, the Grand Patriarch called all his sagely Cardinals and showed them the letter. “Do you see? The Pope wants someone to train his monks. We shall send him what he wants, won’t we, Holy Fathers?” “As you decree, and as our Dear God the Lord wishes, Your Holiness” said the Cardinals in unison. The Grand Patriarch selected four young, promising, devout and learned monks and sent them to the Vatican, instructing them that they would report to the Pope, telling him that Mar Thoma, the Grand Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church had sent them. The other Cardinals all felt that when the Pope had asked for just one monk, why was their Grand Patriarch sending four? They couldn’t understand it and finally decided that old age was catching up finally on him and that he had missed that detail and by mistake he had sent four while only one would have sufficed. Meanwhile, the party of the four monks trudged along the long and arduous path from Constantinople to Vatican. On the way lay a thick forest. They saw some Bushmen hiding among the trees, peering intently at them. “Holy Brothers, look at them. They are men like us, but, not having heard about our Savior, they have sold themselves to the Devil. Let me stay among them and bring back their lost souls back to Christ” said one of them and urged all the others to move on. After some days, the party of three monks reached a village and took shelter in the house of the Chieftain. After dinner, the Chieftain wailed, “Holy Fathers, our Pastor passed away a few days ago and we are all sheep without a shepherd. Can’t one of you stay with us and guide our souls?” this speech touched the heart of one of the three monks and he stayed on tending that village church, urging the others to carry on. After some more days, the two monks reached the Tiber River. Beyond the bridge lay the Vatican. Just as they both crossed the Tiber Bridge, perhaps overcome by the cumulative exhaustion of the long journey, one of the monks collapsed and died. The monk who reached the Vatican was welcomed by the Pope and very soon endeared himself to the Pope due to his piety and wisdom. The Pope wrote a fine letter thanking the Grand Patriarch for sparing such a fine monk. When that thanks letter arrived, all the Cardinals were called and the Grand Patriarch announced, “Do you see? The Pope speaks of only one monk! Do you see now why I sent four when the Pope had asked for only one? Many of us embark on life’s journey, only to be sidetracked here and there, losing sight of our goal, getting shunted before reaching our destiny.”[3]

Help thyself first

One of the main reasons for religious bigotry and religious unrest is the extreme urge that immature people in religion have for spreading their faith. Does faith need to be spread? Indeed, it must. But who should do it? Do we have the requisite understanding for performing this greatest of all jobs? Just because we have a few fine feelings for God and have studied a couple of religious books, are we qualified to lead other souls on the Godward journey?

I quote an illuminating passage that I read some time ago. I am not sure of the author, but I think it was W Somerset Maugham: I was once going down the riverside, looking for a place to sit down for fishing. Fishing, you know, is really relaxing. Apart from listening to music, and taking long walks, it is fishing that I recommend for relaxation, although not necessarily in that order. So, here I was taking a long walk along the river side, looking for a suitable place to sit down and throw my bait, when I saw a man lifting a fish from the waters and placing it on a tree. I asked him, “What are you doing? Why place it on a tree? Why don’t you carry a basket with you to collect your catches?” His reply, still ringing in my ears, was, “Catch? What do you mean? This stupid fish was drowning in the rapid currents of the river. I was passing by when I saw it. I just saved that fish from drowning!” I hope our uncontrollable urge to serve others doesn’t end up like this idiot’s efforts!

Religion deals primarily with our own inner development. We miss the point when we make a social cause out of religion. Father Antony De Mello mentions a beautiful story in this regard: The hero had just returned from the deep Amazon forests. His lectures were all recorded and his journeys were mapped meticulously. All the flowers he saw were reproduced on paper, drawings made of the wild animals he encountered and the entire river was charted on a cartographer’s table. A group of young men approached him once to hear directly from him about the Amazon. He said, “Indeed I have tried my best to describe it all as clearly as I could. But how can I convey to you the intense joy, the exhilaration, the strange feelings that flooded my heart when I saw those exotic flowers & heard those night sounds in the forests & sensed the danger of being close to those wild animals & of paddling in those treacherous rapids! Go out and find out for yourselves, young men.” Those young fellows understood. They went out, found the master map, framed it, and using the pioneer’s lectures and drawings, became experts in interpreting the Amazon map.

Father De Mello mentions another amazing story: The discovery of fire. After many year of labor, an inventor discovered the art of making fire. He took his tool to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a tribe into the art – and the advantages – of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, he had no desire to be remembered or revered; all he sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefitted from his discovery. The next tribe he went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger’s hold on the people, had him assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of the Great inventor enthroned upon the main altar of the temple; and a liturgy designed so that his name would be revered and his memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted. The tools for making fire were enshrined in a casket and were said to bring healing to all who laid their hands on them with faith. The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a life of the Inventor. This became the Holy Book in which his loving kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate. His glorious deeds were eulogized, his superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the Book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of his words and the significance of his holy life and death. And they ruthlessly punished with death or excommunication anyone who deviated from their doctrine. Caught up as they were in their religious tasks, the people completely forgot the art of making fire.[4]

Our spiritual life ought to be based on facts. The sooner it becomes so, the better for all of us. You know, a Professor once asked his class what was the length of the room in which the class was being held. One fellow said, ‘20 feet’. ‘Wrong.’ Another said, ‘19 feet’. ‘Wrong.’ Yet another said, ‘21 feet’. ‘Wrong again.’ You see, when we look at a room, we get a rough feel of its length. Then we start guessing. The number must be around 20 feet. When the Professor rejected all the answers, the students asked him what the actual length was. Do you know the Professor’s answer? He said, ‘I don’t know.’ Guess against guess creates the entire disturbance in the world. Speak of what you know from personal experience and everyone will listen and agree.[5]

It is a life of dedicated spiritual practice that is the need of the hour in religion. You know, when we joined as novices in Ramakrishna Mission, we were all made to study a small book compulsorily; ‘Practice of the presence of God’ by Br Lawrence. One of the most powerful books I have ever read. Br Lawrence says in that book, ‘I never found any difference between the work I did and praying in the chapel.’

I will end today’s long lecture by telling you four stories, which throw wonderful light on spiritual life.

A love-struck youth pressed his suit unsuccessfully, but relentlessly. He applied himself for months, but each time met with atrocious rejection. Finally, his sweetheart yielded. She said that she would meet him alone in such & such a place, on such & such a day, at such & such time. There, they sat, next to each other. The youth had brought all the letters he had written her. Burning words of love, he read them all aloud to her. The ludicrous youth was lost in his letters of longing love for the girl of his heart who now sat next to him! We need structure, we need formal procedures. But, these are only means to attain the goal. We must recognize them for what they are worth.[6]

A bald man was once crossing a river by boat. There was a prankster on the same boat. He saw the shining bald head too tempting and couldn’t resist giving it a resounding smack. The bald man got up to beat him into pulp. The prankster stopped him and asked him, “Wait! Answer my question first: Did your bald head produce the loud sound, or was it my hand?” The bald man growled, “You answer your stupid question yourself at leisure. You don’t feel the pain I feel now. I can’t theorize!”[7] This pain of having not yet ‘seen’ God is the only safeguard we have against getting lost in the thick of thin things in religion.

A question was once asked ‘How do you tell when the night has ended and the day has begun?’ Many answers were given. ‘When you see an animal from some distance and can tell whether it is a cow or a horse.’ ‘When you look at a tree from some distance and can tell if it is a neem tree or mango tree.’ Etc. All were rejected as wrong. When pressed for what was the right answer, they were told, ‘When you look into the face of any man and recognize your brother in him; when you look into the face of a woman and recognize in her your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is, it is still night!’[8] Kindly recall Mother Teresa’s statement I quoted a little while ago.

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of anti-monastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order. In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery. The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.” When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.” In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I? As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.[9]

We need to urgently intensify our focus on our inner life. When we do that correctly, we will find that the quality of our community life too improves. If we don’t do that, the result of leading a so-called spiritual life is a sham. We would be going through the motions, but the end result would be zero!

A person was walking on a road and saw two people working. One of them was digging a hole in the ground. Another came behind him and put all the dug up mud back and closed the hole. Again and again these two people were doing this. This observer saw for a long time and tried to figure out what was happening. When he couldn’t understand it at all, he went up to them and asked what they were doing. One of them replied, “Sir, we are doing a Govt project here on afforestation. I dig a hole in the ground. Another person comes and puts in a sapling. A third person comes after that and fills up the hole with mud. Today, the second guy is absent!”

We all have our monasteries, churches, temples, mosques, monks, followers, God, rituals, and yet, we lack peace! Neither do we experience peace, nor are we capable of giving peace to others around us. So much is there, but the one essential thing is missing. Why? It is because ‘the second guy’ is absent from our lives. Renunciation actually means love of God. Do we love God? How can we be interested then in anything of this world? As Thomas Kempis famously said, ‘Ours is a jealous God!’ Either we give our whole attention to God or He won’t take it! There is no half-way house here.

I once again thank Archbishop Father Thomas D’Souza, Sr Anita Braganza and Sr Anna Maria for having invited me to this holy gathering.

Thank you once again.

****************

[1] This story is taken from ‘Caravan of Dreams’ by Idries Shah: Page 167

[2] Cf: New Testament: Matt 5:8

[3] This story is taken from https://www.scribd.com/document/82805747/Food-for-Thought

[4] This story is from “Prayer of the Frog – Part 1” by Antony De Mello

[5] This story is taken from https://www.scribd.com/document/82805747/Food-for-Thought

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] I have taken this story from ‘How shall I be?’, value-education textbook for Class-VIII by Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math

[9] Different versions of this story are available. I have taken this version from the book ‘Different Drum’ by M Scott Peck. It is also available in the book ‘The road less travelled’ by the same author.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Good evening to all alumni members and their spouses assembled here today.

Mr. Biswas has been kind enough to have introduced me to you all. Before I begin, let me tell you how I came to be here today.

I know Dr Subramanian, the Jt Director of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan through his younger brother Mr. Gopal Krishnan. I have interacted with Mr. Krishnan for quite some time now. Shilpamandira has signed an MoU with Tata Motors regarding training and placement of our automobile technicians. It was Mr. Krishnan who made this happen. He had introduced me to Dr Subramanian. One day, about a fortnight ago, Dr Subramanian came to my office along with Mr. Biswas and asked me if I could address this gathering. Before I could say yes or no, Mr. Biswas said to me, “Maharaj, please choose a catchy topic, something that will be attractive to the alumni members and will be intellectually stimulating to them.” Well, there he actually caught me – with ‘intellectually stimulating’. I said yes, I would go to address the alumni gathering. But then, I pleaded for some time to choose the topic. I then told them about what had happened in our Vedanta Society of Northern California long ago. There was a monk there long ago called Swami Prabhavananda. He was supposed to give a lecture every Sunday in his Center. Over a period of time he found that the number of people attending his weekly lectures started dwindling. He wished to increase the attendance in his lectures. So he came up with an ingenuous plan. He gave an advertisement in the local papers saying “This Sunday, Swami Prabhavananda will speak on ‘How to make money’ at such and such address.” The hall was overflowing, with people having no place even to stand; so many had turned up. He slowly walked up to the rostrum and told them, “Well, I don’t know how to make money. But, if I hadn’t advertised like this, so many of you wouldn’t have come here. Now that you have all come here, I will tell you about Vedanta which I do know. Please listen.” We had a good laugh about it. Today’s evening also is something of the same sort, I am afraid! Anyway, I had asked for some time to decide on the topic. Then I went about my day’s work in Shilpamandira. I had a series of meetings with various departments that day. One of my lecturers came to me with a personal problem. And in the course of our discussion, he asked me this question – why do bad things happen to good people? That was when I immediately messaged both Dr Subramanian and Mr. Biswas that this would be my topic.

So much for the background; now I will inform you my plan for this evening. I will speak for so long as one of us – either you or I – gets bored. Then I will throw the house open for questions. Now, let me elaborate on today’s topic of my lecture.

While introducing me, Mr. Biswas said that I was an Engineer before I became a monk. I in fact studied in the same college in Bangalore as Mr. Biswas’s son studied in. Just as the introduction got over, Mr. Amitava Chakravarti here pointed out that my becoming a monk was indeed a good thing for me, but must have certainly been a bad thing for my parents! I will come to that point a little later in my lecture. That is the whole problem with this question. Good and bad certainly seem to be vague and naïve categorizations.

We will all agree that this is a question that we have all asked ourselves sometime or the other in our lives. I will point out to you some of the important points concerning this question. Then I will try to explain to you what Vedanta has to say on this question. You see, I am a monk of the Ramakrishna Mission. I represent Swami Vivekananda’s ideas and they are basically Vedanta ideas, with some important deviations.

I believe that all of us in this hall will agree that we all consider ourselves to be ‘good people’. There will be no one here who will claim to be a bad person. You know what most of us think about ourselves? ‘I am a good person. I do admit that I have some weaknesses, some short-comings, but then, I am not a bad person at all!’ This is what most of us feel about ourselves. Am I not right? And as a corollary of this self-concept, we ask ourselves, ‘I am a good person; how could such a bad thing happen to me?!’

This brings me to an important idea that seems to be pervasive among all human beings. That is the idea that if we are good, only good things ought to happen to us. Since I haven’t done anything wrong, how can something bad happen to me? This is the line of thinking that seems to be pervasive all over the world, irrespective of culture, race and religion.

I wish to point out one important fallacy with this line of thought. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who once said, ‘We are excellent advocates of our short-comings and the cruelest judges of the mistakes that others commit.’ We seem to be unable to make an unbiased judgment about our own actions. Hence we always judge ourselves to be correct and hence ‘good persons’. Others, on the other hand, seem to be committing a hell of a lot of mistakes and hence they ought to be receiving blows after blows for their ‘bad’ actions! How correct is this judgment?

Then there is the thing about the point of us being all good. What exactly is the basis on which we judge ourselves to be good? Since we never committed a ‘bad’ act, we claim to be good. Not being bad – is it necessary and sufficient condition to be categorized as ‘good’? Let me tell you a small story: A couple developed some trouble between themselves and their marriage was getting rocked. They approached a marriage counselor. The counsellor told the husband, ‘Go home and listen to what your wife says. She has something to say to you about many things. Just listen to what she says.’ So the husband went back home and went on listening attentively to all that his wife had to say. A month later he came to the marriage counsellor. The counsellor asked him, ‘Well, how is the situation now?’ The husband said, ‘A little better.’ Then the counsellor advised, ‘Now, go back home. This time, along with listening to all that she says, listen very carefully to all the things that she doesn’t say!’ Very similar is our condition too, I guess. We, of course, don’t commit crimes. But then, how many of us here can claim that we go out of our way and perform acts of real goodness? Most of us cannot claim that. And yet, we are quite hasty in classifying ourselves under the group ‘good people’!

Somehow we all seem to assume that life is quite logical in its unfoldment. We assume that there is a linear logic governing our lives. This feeling is pervasive in all of us. But, is it really linear? Listen to a story. A man was once walking along a road. He saw that two policemen were walking behind him, a little far away. He stole a look at both of them. He suddenly felt that their faces and their animated body language seemed to tell him that both of them were discussing about him and that they suspected him about something. A fear enveloped him and he bolted. As soon as the two policemen saw that the man before them was running, they gave chase. He came across a huge iron gate. He jumped over it and entered a graveyard. There was a freshly dug out grave. He jumped into it and hid there. But it wasn’t long before the law enforcement officers caught him there. They asked him why he was hiding there. When they asked him that question, he realized that he had acted in haste and that he was never a suspect in the first place. He gave an answer which I appreciate a lot. He said, “Officer, you have asked a simple question. But I assure you that I cannot give you an equally simple answer to that question. All I can safely tell you is this – I am here because of you both, and the both of you are here because of me!” So, within small circles of events, there does seem to be linear logic working in our lives, but when you consider the events of our lives in larger circles, in larger periods of time, linear logic doesn’t seem to be operative.

Anyway, be that as it may. This is a question that is asked by people all over the world, at all times and under every conceivable situation. I hold that if there is some tendency that is pervasive in human beings, then, it means that that tendency ought to serve some universal benefit. If it did not serve a universal purpose, it wouldn’t be present in such a pervasive manner. Vedanta claims that this tendency present in us – the tendency to seriously ask ourselves – ‘why do bad things happen to us?’ is meant to serve some purpose in our lives. In other words, Vedanta says that it cannot answer this question, but it can show you how you can put this tendency to ask this question, the capability to feel suffering, to good use.

This is one characteristic feature of Vedanta. It says that just because you ask a logical question, there is absolutely no guarantee that a logical answer can be given. That is Vedanta’s stand. This is a question that cannot be answered satisfactorily at all. It is impossible to give a logical answer to this question. However, that doesn’t mean Vedanta is not interested in the question. Vedanta is interested in this question because, it can show you a way to put the faculty that gave rise to this question to a wonderful use and enable us to achieve a marvelous objective for yourself.

Semitic Religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism have attempted to answer this question by a simplistic method. They posit two entities – God and the Devil. All that is good comes from God. All that is evil comes from the other side!

Vedanta doesn’t accept such an approach. There is no attempt to hook moral judgments onto God. Vedanta does posit a God, a creator-preserver-destroyer. And everything comes from Him. Good comes from Him. Bad too comes from Him. Why does Vedanta say such a thing? This is because, categorization of people or events into two water-tight compartments of good and bad is very naïve. Any person with sufficient maturity will understand that such compartmentalization is impossible. Let me explain this by telling you a story. I read this story long ago. I guess it was written by Leo Tolstoy. There was a man living in a Russian village. He had a strange habit of saying that everything that happened was for his good. His friends did not agree. They made fun of him saying that events were either good or bad and his outlook that everything that happened was good was stupid. One day, this man’s only young son went hunting with his friends. During that hunt, his son broke his leg. He came back home and his situation was so bad that there were doubts if he would be able to walk again at all. This man’s friends now approached him and asked him how he felt about this event. As usual, the man held that this had happened for his own good. They concluded that he was a fool and was incorrigible and went away. Some weeks later, Russia entered into a war and the Czar issued a decree that all able-bodied young men should join the army and fight on the battle field. Now the man ran to his friends and pointed out that while all of them had to send their sons to the army, he was exempted because his only son couldn’t walk yet! So, wasn’t he right in his claim that the accident that had occurred was actually good?

Thus, the very scheme of things in this world seems to be such that the border line between good and bad keeps shifting. What we considered good at one time, under one set of situations may turn out to be bad a little while later, under a different set of situations. When such is the actual situation, it is quite right that Vedanta chooses to ignore answering this question of ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ and instead focuses on putting the tendency to ask this question to some better use.

Vedanta focuses on discovering something inside us that is eternal. Vedanta claims that the core of our being, in each one of us, is perfect, is undying, and is pure. Vedanta says that although perfection is so close to us, rather closer than anything else, we don’t know it. And that makes us go towards it is suffering. Suffering opens our eyes. I agree that this statement appears harsh, cruel, even unsettling. But then, this whole business of dealing with the Truth is only for those with the stoutest hearts. In the Mahabharata, there is a prayer by Kunti, a marvelous prayer. She prays to the Lord as follows: ‘O Lord, give me more and more suffering, so that I can remember you so much more.

Look at this artifice. Suffering brings us in closer contact with the Lord. In other words, suffering brings us in closer contact with our inner core. Hence, it makes sense in asking for more and more suffering so that we can get closer to our inner core so much earlier and sooner! Western psychology speaks of a type of persons called ‘Masochists’. These persons also seek pain and suffering. I however hold that Vedanta is not masochism. The reason why a masochist seeks suffering is because he gets a perverse happiness in undergoing pain. A Vedantist seeks suffering so that he can move further inside himself towards his inner core.

How does Vedanta expect us to go deeper within ourselves using the experiences we get in our life? There is a great mental block regarding spiritual unfoldment. Most of us feel that we need to lead a dedicated life, a life consisting of only devotional practices and meditation for spiritual growth. In no other way can we grow spiritually; this seems to be the popular conception. Well, Vedanta does have some such practices too. There is a path called Raja Yoga. It prescribes that one should lead a secluded life. Not engaging in any activities other than meditation and pranayama, one is expected to lead a totally isolated existence. There are endless rules and regulations about how & what to eat, about what to think and what to speak, about how much to exercise and how much to sleep and what to wear and things like that. If one chooses to follow such a path, of course, one has to completely forget one’s social life, one’s family and friends and become a monk. You will immediately ask me – what will happen to my family? And my business?

Vedanta prescribes a wonderful path called Karma Yoga for the masses. Most of the other paths like Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga are for a very special type of people. Karma Yoga is for you and me. What is this Karma Yoga? How does one practice it? What developments occur in us as a result of practicing this Yoga? I will tell you a small story to indicate these things. I will elaborate on this topic some other day, if we meet again. For now, I will just give you some broad indications of the actual scope of Karma Yoga in our daily lives.

 

 

Most of us think that Karma Yoga means catching some poor beggars, destitute people and distributing some clothes and food to them; or, running a dispensary. Indeed, that is a type of Karma Yoga, where we do something to someone who can never repay us; something done selflessly. But the main form of Karma Yoga is something else. It is practiced in the context of our daily life itself. All of us have to work. There is a particular mode with which we can work and reap enormous benefit from it.

 

I will tell you a story that Swami Vivekananda recounted in his seminal book ‘Karma Yoga’. This story is taken from the Mahabharata. It concerns a Vyadha. Vyadha is a Sanskrit term for a butcher, one who kills animals and sells their meat for his living. The story is as follows:

“A  young  Sannyasi  went  to  a  forest;  there  he  meditated,  worshipped,  and  practiced  Yoga  for  a long  time.  After  years  of  hard  work  and  practice,  he  was  one  day  sitting  under  a  tree,  when  some  dry leaves fell upon his head. He looked up and saw a crow and a crane fighting on the top of the tree, which made him very angry. He said, “What! Dare you throw these dry leaves upon my head?!” As  with these words he angrily glanced at them, a flash of fire went out of his head — such was the Yogi’s power — and burnt  the  birds  to  ashes.  He  was  very  glad,  almost  overjoyed  at  this  development  of  power  —  he  could burn the crow and the crane by a look. After a time he had to go to the town to beg his bread. He went, stood at a door, and said, “Mother, give me food.” A voice came from inside the house, “Wait a little, my son.” The young man thought, “You wretched woman, how dare you make me wait! You do not know my power yet.”  While  he  was  thinking  thus  the  voice  came  again:  “Boy,  don’t  be  thinking  too  much  of yourself. Here is neither crow nor crane.” He was astonished; still he had to wait. At last the woman came, and he fell at her feet and said, “Mother, how did you know that?” She said, “My boy, I do not know your Yoga or your practices. I am a common everyday woman. I made you wait because my husband is ill, and I was nursing him. All my life I have struggled to do my duty. When I was unmarried, I did my duty to my parents; now that I am married, I do my duty to my husband; that is all the Yoga I practice. But by doing my duty I have become illumined; thus I could read your thoughts and know what you had done in the forest. If you want to know something higher than this, go to the market of such and such a town where you will find a Vyadha (The lowest class of people in India who used to live as hunters and butchers.) who will tell you something that you will be very glad to learn.” The Sannyasi thought, “Why should I go to that town and to a Vyadha?” But after what he had seen, his mind opened a little, so he went. When he came near the town, he found the market and there saw, at a distance, a big fat Vyadha cutting meat with big knives, talking and bargaining with different people. The young man said, “Lord help me! Is this the man from whom I am going to learn? He is the incarnation of a demon, if he is anything.” In the meantime this man  looked  up  and  said,  “O  Swami,  did  that  lady  send  you  here?  Take a seat until I have done my business.” The Sannyasi thought, “What comes to me here?” He took his seat; the man went on with his work,  and  after  he  had  finished  he  took  his  money  and  said  to  the  Sannyasi,  “Come  sir,  come  to  my home.” On reaching home the Vyadha gave him a seat, saying, “Wait here,” and went into the house. He then washed his old father and mother, fed them, and did all he could to please them, after which he came to the Sannyasi and said, “Now, sir, you have come here to see me; what can I do for you?” The Sannyasi asked him a few questions about soul and about God, and the Vyadha gave him a lecture which forms a part of the Mahabharata, called the Vyâdha-Gitâ. It contains one of the highest flights of the Vedanta.

When the Vyadha finished his teaching, the Sannyasi felt astonished. He said, “Why are you in that body? With such knowledge as yours why are you in a Vyadha’s body, and doing such filthy, ugly work?” “My son,” replied the Vyadha, “no duty is ugly, no duty is impure. My birth placed me in these circumstances and environments. In my boyhood I learnt the trade; I am unattached, and I try to do my duty well. I try to do my duty as a householder, and I try to do all I can to make my father and mother happy. I neither know your Yoga, nor have I become a Sannyasi, nor did I go out of the world into a forest; nevertheless, all that you have heard and seen has come to me through the unattached doing of the duty which belongs to my position.””

This is the path prescribed by Karma Yoga for all of us. The inner growth occurs as a result of intense self-introspection and self-correction when we face blows in the course of our daily life.

If you think Kunti’s prayer is strange, wait till you hear about the Bodhisattva. The Buddhists have something called the Bodhisattva Ideal. The Bodhisattva is a person, or rather, a state of mind, in which a person starts feeling that he should suffer all the pains of all beings in this world so that every being should be happy! Actually the Buddhists appropriated this ideal from Vedanta. The Vedanta speaks of an ancient King called Rantideva. This king too had his own prayer which was as follows:

Na tvaham kaamaye raajyam, na svargam, na punarbhavam;

Kaamaye duhkataptaanaam praaninaam aarthinaashanam.

“I do not desire for this kingdom, or for heaven, or even for another birth. What I desire is that I should suffer all the suffering of all beings that are in pain!”

Let us pause for a moment here. We began our deliberation today by asking ourselves as to why bad things happen to good people. In other words, why do good people suffer? Or again, in other words, how can good people [like ourselves] avoid suffering. And now, we find here some characters from the Vedanta who are apparently seeking for more and more suffering, in each case with an end in view. While Kunti sought more suffering so that she could remember the Lord more, King Rantideva sought suffering so that other beings could live happily. Just see how strange this mentality is from the mentality that we all possess right now.

When I was a young boy and read such stories in our holy books, I used to feel that they were all fiction and that in reality people like you and I could never raise ourselves to such a standard. Then I got introduced to Swami Vivekananda and I am afraid I have had to change my views about this. This transformation is very real, very possible and in fact, such a transformation seems to be our destiny! Let me highlight two incidents from the life of Swami Vivekananda to explain what I mean.

The first incident I speak about is when he was about 18 or 19 years old. His father was a rich man with a roaring legal practice. He hailed from a famous family right here in this city. He was very intelligent, highly talented and had an extremely bright future ahead of him. Exactly when everything seemed so right for him, his father died. His father had obviously not planned for his early death and hence overnight, Narendranath found himself in deep debt that he inherited from his father. He also inherited innumerable family legal suits and with all his talent, intellectual achievements and excellent family background, he was unable to get a decent job anywhere in this large town. Further, he was in such a bad shape that he couldn’t afford two square meals for himself and his mother and brothers and sisters. Yet, he continued to practice his daily devotions to the Lord. His mother observed this trait in him and one day chided him with this question that we began our discussion today. When his mother asked him that question, the young boy Narendranath was tongue-tied. He had no answer.

The second incident I refer to is to a letter that Swami Vivekananda wrote sometime in 1901. In that letter he writes, ‘I am ready to go to hell [i.e. undergo endless suffering] if I can bring even one man to the Light’. See what a transformation in a person in a matter of just 12 or 15 years! So I got the conviction that such a transformation is indeed possible in this very life.

Before I end my lecture, I will address just one more aspect of this topic. Some of you may think that the question would make more sense if I had asked ‘Why do good things happen to bad people?’ In other words, it seems really horrible that bad people seem to be having a very good time, while good people go on suffering. Why does that happen? Frankly speaking, I don’t know. But I will tell you a story.

You all know that Bhagawan Buddha, before he arrived at the Truth, was an earnest seeker by the name Siddhartha Gautama. One summer day he was walking in the forest and he came upon a beautiful lake. It had cool, clear water and he felt like taking a bath. He slowly entered the water, had a bath, felt refreshed and as he was about to come out of the lake, he saw some beautiful lotus flowers in bloom at the far end of the lake. He went near the flowers, bent down and smelled the heavenly fragrance of the flowers. Then he came out of the lake and started wearing clothes. At that moment, a Yaksha, a demigod materialized before him. The Yaksha said, “Say, young monk, how dare you enter my lake without obtaining my permission?” The Yaksha berated Gautama for quite some time. Gautama’s head was bent down in shame. He wanted to say that he had no idea that the lake had a caretaker, but he never got a chance to put in a word; the Yaksha was relentless in his scolding. In the meantime, a King’s nobleman rode up to the lake on horseback. He too saw the cool, clear waters on that hot summer day, tied his horse to a tree, tore his clothes apart and jumped into the lake. He splashed around for a long time, making the clear water all murky. When he had finished his sporting in water, as he was about to come out, he too eyed the beautiful lotus flowers in bloom. He went to the corner of the lake, roughly plucked a handful of flowers for his sweetheart at home, came out of the lake, wore his clothes and rode away. All this while, Gautama was thinking, ‘I did nothing in comparison to what this nobleman is doing and I was berated so badly; perhaps the Yaksha will strike this man down dead any minute now!’ But, when the nobleman went away safely, Gautama said to the Yaksha, “Well, Yaksha; I now understand you. I am a gentle person and hence you scolded me to your heart’s content. I saw that you did nothing to that nobleman. Of course, how could you? He is a big, powerful man.” The Yaksha’s reply is worthy of our meditation. The Yaksha said, “Gautama, I scolded you because you proclaim to follow a very high ideal in your life. That nobleman is an ordinary man, with simple goals in his life. The standards of behavior are different for you and for him.” so by claiming to be a good person, our responsibility increases greatly.

I have tried to give you some ideas about today’s topic. I have also tried to explain to you Vedanta’s stand on this subject. With this, I end my lecture. I now open the topic for a Q&A session. Thank you for a patient hearing.

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IS GOD LISTENING?

IS GOD LISTENING?

By Kenneth L. Woodward[1] On 3/30/97 At 7:00 Pm

Mimi Rumpp stopped praying for a winning lottery ticket years ago. With a husband, two kids and a full – time job, she didn’t have time for trivial pursuits. But after a doctor told her sister Miki last year that she needed a kidney transplant, the family began praying for a donor. This, Mimi thought, was a prize worth praying for. Less than a year later, Miki has a new kidney, courtesy of a bank teller in Napa, Calif., to whom she had told her story. The teller was the donor; she was so moved by Miki’s plight she had herself tested and discovered she was a perfect match.

Coincidence? Luck? Divine intervention? Rumpp is sure: “It was a miracle.”

It was almost 20 years ago, but the woman, now a Los Angeles journalist, still trembles when she describes the scene. Late on a black, noiseless night in upstate New York, she decided to take a shortcut home, up a steep, unlit path. Then she heard steps behind her, faster than her own. An instant later the man was upon her, tightening her new striped scarf around her neck, then ripping at her pants. At home, her mother woke from a deep sleep, seized with fear that something terrible was about to happen to her eldest daughter. The mother immediately knelt down beside her bed and prayed. For 15 minutes she begged God to protect her daughter from the nameless but real threat she felt her daughter faced. Convinced she had won God’s attention – and protection – the mother returned to bed and a sound sleep. Back on the stony path, the would – be rapist suddenly ceased his assault. He cocked his head, almost beastlike, the woman recalls, and fled down the hill.

Coincidence? Luck? Or divine intervention? Were prayers answered or were prayers irrelevant? The devoted mother and her daughter, a professional skeptic, are certain in their belief. That was the Devil on the hill, and it was God who led him away.

Such are the mysteries of prayer. For those blessed with faith, of course, there is no doubt: these are answered prayers, pure and simple. And Americans are a praying people. In a new Newsweek Poll, a majority of American adults – 54 percent – report praying on a daily basis, and 29 percent say they pray more than once a day. For them, it is not an unrequited relationship: 87 percent say they believe that God answers their prayers at least some of the time.

And when he doesn’t, what then? Gary Habermas is chairman of the philosophy department at Liberty University, the institution founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist televangelist. By belief and by habit, Habermas is a praying man. In the 1980s, he kept a prayer list, with hundreds of names, often of people he didn’t know. He prayed for their jobs, their health, their children, and, after watching a remarkable set of healings, concluded that personal prayer works. So, when his 87 – years old grandmother fell deathly ill, he sat at her bedside in ‘serious prayer’. To his delight, she recovered. And then, in May 1995, his wife of 23 years was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Once again he prayed, more anxiously than ever, to his trustworthy God. He didn’t mean to be selfish, he prayed. “If it’s not your will that she be spared, then your will be done.” But he didn’t want to be judged indifferent, either. “But you understand, I really want her back.”

By one measure, he failed. Debbie died. But before she did, she told her husband that “God spoke to me. Three words: I love you.” Habermas was torn between grief and gratitude for a power he could no more master than understand. “She had doubted God’s love all her life, yet now she was as sure of his love as she was of mine,” he says today. “I trust him to have a good answer to my prayers. That’s not the same as knowing what that answer is.” Habermas is in the mainstream. According to the Newsweek Poll, 85 percent of Americans say they accept God’s failure to grant their prayers. Only 13 percent say they have lost faith – at any time – because their prayers went unanswered.

It is remarkable that in millennial America, where public cynicism seemingly knows no bounds and the coin of the mass – culture realm is cheap, ironic detachment, trust in God persists. The prayers keep coming – for health, safety, love and, to a remarkable degree, for others. At her Roman Catholic parish in Newton, Mass., Dorothy Reece runs a prayer line in which 50 congregants pray for a long list of needy people. Her current prayer registry reveals a Job – like list of human miseries: a heart attack, a spleen removed, stomach cancer, drug addiction, infertility, a husband’s desertion, a job interview. “We really do believe that God can take care of more than one person at a time,” says Reece.

Pentecostals are firm believers that God works miracles all the time. At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., students run a round – the – clock prayer ministry, taking requests by phone, fax and e – mail. For those who prefer the Web, there’s the Praise & Prayer Center site. If you’re Jewish and can’t make it to Jerusalem, an Israeli company offers e – mail service with direct delivery of prayer requests to the Wailing Wall. At Foundary Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., where the Clintons usually worship, there are Thursday evening healing services for the sick in body, mind or soul. Although the president has never attended one of those sessions, congregants prayed last week for a quick healing of his damaged knee.

This ubiquity of prayer came as a surprise to Foundary Memorial’s pastor, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman. He had spent most of his career teaching seminary students before he took Foundary’s pulpit five years ago. And, as he said last week, “I had no idea people were doing these things.” This is a subject that frankly embarrasses some religious intellectuals. “If you look at formal liturgies,” says Robert Bruce Mullin, author of ‘Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination’, and a religion professor at North Carolina State University, “they come right to the point of talking about the power of intercessory prayer. But they don’t want to cross the line saying, ‘Yes, God can intervene in the world’.”

Many of the nation’s leading theological schools have become obsessed with liberation theology, feminist theology, all forms of serious icon – shattering postmodern theology. But the people in the pews never forgot that they had come to pray. When Roberta Bondi, now a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was herself a Methodist seminarian, asking God for personal favors was considered “an exercise in narcissism and dishonesty: prayer was a way of bucking us all up to be socially responsible.” Today, for her, it is something much more personal and direct. “If I want a real relationship with God, I have to tell him what’s going on,” she says. “As with any relationship, you don’t know in advance how it’s going to turn out. You just do it, you make yourself accessible so you’re prepared to receive grace when it comes.”

Jesus, of course, repeatedly urged his followers to petition the Father for their needs. Many of his own miraculous cures occurred only after others begged him to heal their afflictions. “Ask and you shall receive,” he said, “seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” By that measure, millions of Americans are finders as well as seekers.

How do the faithful know that God really answers prayers? More than any other issue in religion, the response depends on point of view. If you believe, no proof is necessary; if you don’t, no proof is sufficient. For nonbelievers, prayer of any kind is folly, and relying on God for favors is the worst form that folly can take. In his final book, “The Demon – Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” the late Carl Sagan included prayer along with astrology, spoon – bending, witches, ESP, spiritualism and repressed memories as examples of the persistence of irrationality (next story). The fact that most Americans both pray and believe that Earth has been visited by odd – shaped extraterrestrials, he pointed out, does not offer much confidence that faith in God – the Supreme Extraterrestrial – is rationally warranted.

The challenge Sagan raises is one that bothers many theologians and other religious intellectuals. The issues involved are particularly acute for Christian faith and practice. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his disciples specifically to ask the Father for their ‘daily bread’ and for deliverance from ‘evil’. That covers a lot of ground, and pious Christians have been filling in the details ever since. But while ordinary believers continue asking God for favors, an international group of Christian scientists, philosophers and theologians has been grappling with the implications of this old and seemingly innocuous habit. Although their arguments are often abstruse, participants believe they are necessary for the coherence and integrity of religious faith. Given what science tells us about the laws of nature, what does it mean to say that God intervenes to answer individual prayers? What do answered prayers say about God? Since many prayers go unanswered, does this mean that God plays favorites? And what kind of prayer is it that tries to manipulate God for personal benefit? Doesn’t all petitionary prayer treat God as a kind of divine vending machine? In short, what does the simple act of begging for this or that presuppose about our understanding of God, the world of nature and ourselves?

For some theologians, the basic issue is simple. Modern science presents an increasingly compelling model of how the world works to which religion, if it is to remain intellectually honest, must adjust its ideas about God. For these theologians, prayers of petition are understandable but intellectually outdated. “It’s not very helpful to think of God as an old man in the sky waiting for communication and answering it,” says Gordon Kaufman, emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School. “We have to think of God much more in accordance with the general picture of the world.” According to that picture, Kaufman argues, the universe is an ecological system where scientific laws govern the course of events, making the idea of a transcendent personal God untenable. “I prefer to think of God as creativity, rather than as creator,” he says. In this reconfigured world, therefore, praying to a personal God, as he once did, makes no sense. Instead, says Kaufman, the only kind of prayer that works is “meditation – trying to understand faults, mistakes, where I’ve gone wrong.”

But there are a number of academics who think that Kaufman’s view claims too much for science, too little for God. Several of them are both scientists and Anglican priests, members of a group called The Society of Ordained Scientists, who believe faith and science share a common ground of intellectual inquiry. “Twentieth – century science has seen the death of a nicely mechanical view of the world,” says the Rev. John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist and currently a visiting professor at New York’s General Theological Seminary. Nor is the world, he believes, a place where laws of nature determine and explain everything that happens. Modern physics alone reveals a world shot through with uncertainty and indeterminacy. “The causes that bring about the future are not just the causes that physics processes in bits and pieces,” says Polkinghorne. “They also include what I call active information from human beings and from God.” In his model of the world, there is room for nature to be itself, human beings to make choices and God to influence history through Divine Providence. “The world isn’t God’s puppet theater,” he observes.

If there is ample room for God in the perspective of these theologian – scientists, there still isn’t much space for miracles. To scientists who look for universal laws and work with repeatable experiments, a single inexplicable event can only be described as nature’s ‘misbehavior’, says physicist Paul Davies of the University of Adelaide in Australia, who has written numerous popular books on the philosophical dimensions of modern science. A miracle by definition is a direct act of God – and that, often enough, is what ordinary people say has been the answer to their prayers. According to the Bible, miracles are signs and wonders that point to the reality and power of God.

But all miracles are in the eyes of the beholder, and can be recognized only if those eyes are open to faith. “Healings are certainly healings, but if you take them as just the restoration of somatic health, then you’ve missed the point,” says Episcopal theologian Charles Hefling of Boston College. If one is sick, prays for healing, gets better and then forgets about what’s happened, that’s not a miracle, says Hefling. “Even if the doctors can’t explain why it happened, it’s not a sign and wonder in the Biblical sense because it hasn’t opened one’s eyes to that Something Else.”

There is, in sum, no way to prove empirically that even the most inexplicable event is an act of God. His ways are indeed mysterious. But many doctors are convinced that prayers can significantly improve a patient’s health. And several of them are designing tests to try to prove the power of prayer.

The most intriguing experiment involves 60 patients at the Arthritis Treatment Center in Clearwater, Fla. Because rheumatoid arthritis has clear manifestations – including swollen joints and crippling pain – relief of these symptoms can be easily measured. The study is under the general direction of Dr. Dale Matthews, an associate professor of medicine at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Matthews is also a Presbyterian who has been praying for and with patients for years and now wants to find out if science can confirm that prayer really has healing effects.

He has divided the participants into two general groups. All patients will receive four days of healing prayer through the traditional Christian practice of laying on of hands by members of the Christian Healing Ministry. In addition, half the patients will receive six months of long – distance intercessory prayer. Both groups will be examined by the same clinician before the experiment, immediately afterward and again at one, three, six and twelve months. Throughout, Matthews is using strict scientific protocols and standards set by the American College of Rheumatology. By the end of this year, after an outside physician has scrutinized the data, Matthews and his team hope to show what difference, if any, prayer has made.

Already, a videotape of the early phase of the study shows that some individual patients have experienced extraordinary short – term results from prayer. “There’s something weird going on here, and I love it,” says one patient. At the beginning of the experiment he had 49 tender joints. After four sessions with a hands – on praying minister, he had only eight. Six months later, he says he has no pain at all and no need of medication.

Matthews doesn’t expect that all the patients will turn out so well. He’s mainly interested in discovering whether prayer has long – term benefits. But what is being tested here, the power of prayer or God’s willingness to take part in scientific experiments? “That’s a fair question,” Matthews acknowledges. “God can bless or not bless this study.”

Indeed, one of the great problems in asking God for any favor is that he often does not grant it. And when he favors some and not others, it appears that he does indeed play favorites. Is God unjust or is it that he only appears that way?

The question is as old as the book of job, and believers have been wrestling ever since with the answer God gives there: “Who has a claim against me that I must pay?” Deists take the view that God set the universe in motion and then withdrew from intervention in its unfolding: that is why bad things often happen to good people. But that makes God a remote and unapproachable being. Protestant theologian Ronald Goetz of Elmhurst College in Illinois doesn’t see how a God worthy of the title has any choice but to interact with the people he has created. “I don’t think a deistic god, who doesn’t involve himself, is any less innocent than the God of Scriptures who says he is committed,” Goetz argues. “If a creator is uninvolved, then I shall be uninvolved with him.”

A vision of God who can act but won’t – who sits back paring his nails, in James Joyce’s famous phrase – can be unsettling. The Jewish community in the West continues to ask how an event so horrific as the Holocaust could have happened, and this can generate skepticism about the power of prayer. Petitionary prayer is not foreign to Judaism; healing centers have opened recently in New York and San Francisco. But most rabbis prefer to pray for wisdom, not relief. The master of this view is Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’ was just the first in a series of best sellers. “I don’t like the notion that when we pray and don’t get answers, God has considered our request and said, ‘No’,” Kushner says. “I’d get very angry if I felt God had the power and chose not to. I don’t know anything about the nature of God. But I know prayer makes life better and richer for me.”

Prayer can certainly be manipulative and trivial. Must God choose between a boxer who thanks Allah for victory and his opponent who prays to Jesus? When Notre Dame played Texas Christian University in basketball last week, was the Irish victory a sign of divine preference? In fact, coaches today use prayer as a form of team bonding, asking only that players perform up to their full potential. On professional teams like the New York Knicks, athletes who want to pray, sometimes do it together with members of the opposition. Serious athletes – if not passionate fans – know that God does not provide a competitive edge.

Still, prayers of petition can be the beginning of a lifelong relationship. “We go to God with dirty hands and ambiguous motives,” observes theologian Goetz. But with repetition, elementary prayer can develop into more refined, less self – centered habits. “If you’re learning to play the piano, do the exercise first,” advises theologian Hefling. “Chopin comes later.”

At Easter time, all Christians are reminded that Jesus himself did not always get his own prayers answered. At least not the way he wanted. As the liturgy of Good Friday recalls, Jesus pleaded with the Father, just before his arrest by Roman soldiers, that ‘the cup’ of suffering he was about to drink be taken from him. He literally sweated blood, the Gospels say, while thinking of the hideous death that lay before him. Yet his supplication was refused, and he went to the cross in obedience to the Father’s will. Mark’s Gospel records that his last words were dark indeed: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It was the Father’s will that, Christians believe, Jesus should be crucified for others. And the purpose, the Gospels also tell us, was that all might enjoy everlasting life. Such are the mysteries of prayer.

In this Newsweek Poll, 82% say they ask for health or success for a child or family member when they pray; 75% ask for strength to overcome personal weakness; 87% say that God answers prayers; 51% think God doesn’t answer prayers to win sporting events; 36% never pray for financial or career success; 29% say they pray to God more than once a day; 25% pray once a day; 82% say they believe that God does not play favorites in answering prayers; 79% say God answers prayers for healing someone with an incurable disease; 73% think prayers for help in finding a job are answered; 54% say that when God doesn’t answer their prayers, it means it wasn’t God’s will to answer; 82% don’t turn away from God when prayers go unanswered.

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Citation Details : Is God listening?

Article Abstract:

Skeptics and believers argue over the observation that prayer is a powerful tool to ward away evil. A Newsweek survey reveals that a majority of Americans still believe in the power of prayer and can attest that most of the unexplainable events in their lives are due to divine intervention.

Author : Woodward, Kenneth L.

Publisher : Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

Publication Name : Reader’s Digest

Subject : General interest

ISSN : 0034-0375

Year : 1997

Topic Tags : Analysis, Personal narratives, Psychology, Religious, Psychology and religion, Transcendence of God, Divine transcendence

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[1] Cf: http://www.newsweek.com/god-listening-170460; Also see the colophon to this article for citation.

Indian History – an alternate perspective

We Indians today are in the habit of looking at our Independence Day from the perspective of the year 1947. We have trained ourselves to look at this day as the day on which we became politically free from the British Rule over us. This is true in a limited sense only. There is a larger perspective from which we ought to look at this day. Those of us who are the followers of Swami Vivekananda however look at this day from the perspective of the entire history of this glorious land. Swamiji articulated his alternative reading of our history, as opposed to the popular version instituted by the European historians, in his various writings such as Modern India, Evolution of Indian History, etc. In the following dissertation, we shall try to elaborate this alternate version, not as a comprehensive theory of Indian history, but rather as a starting point for a new discourse on our history – an Indian view of Indian history, if one may call it so.[1]

Indian history, as we know it today, from various recorded sources, can be divided into four distinct periods. Each of these periods was dominated by one major religion of the world.

The 1st period was the Vedic period of Indian history. This period led to the flowering of the Vedas & the Upanishads. Some even say this was the period when the major population actually lived between modern-day Syria and the Indus-Sarasvati Valley.

The 2nd period was the Buddhist period. By this time, the population had shifted base to the Indo-Gangetic plains. Buddha’s principles and his version of the Vedic religion formed the central vein of Indian history during this period.

This was followed by the 1000 year-long Muslim period.

And the latest period was the Christian period; the most despicable 500 years in all our history. As a nation, we touched rock-bottom during this period.

As Swami Vivekananda pointed out, religion has always been the back-bone of India. It has not always been the same religion, but it was always religion, understood as a marked path to reach the Infinite. What happened on 15th August 1947 was that we shook ourselves free of the shackles of Christian domination on our nation. We entered into a new era in our history. Extrapolating our past,[2] we can imagine that this new era will be again dominated by some other religion, perhaps one that hasn’t been tried in the past. Is it like that? Is that how Indian history will take shape? Well, let us see.

If we imagine India as a living person, with a mind of its own, we can ask the question – why did India choose a different religion for a certain period in the past? It seems India wanted to see, to what heights of perfection, man could reach with each of the established religions.

During the Vedic period, man perfected the individualistic spiritual quest. He grappled with the question of how a man could reach the Truth. He perfected the method of the Ashrama-dharma, where man enters society as a student, graduates into a social being, and then becomes a recluse, finally realizing the Truth within his own consciousness. Having perfected this method, what need was there for any other experimentation? Well, such is the Indian soul that it’s hunger for variety in the sphere of the Spirit in insatiable.

When the above mentioned path was worked out practically, it had a very strange fallout. Society got stratified into four Varnas, or castes. And the whole problem arose here, with this stratification. The distribution of population was such that a miniscule occupied the first two castes – Brahmana & Kshatriya; a little more number of people belonged to the third caste – Vaishya. The majority of the population belonged to the last caste – Shudra. The entire national drama was stage-managed by the first two castes, the upper minuscule of the national population. The Vaishya and Shudra didn’t matter at all. Although the people who mattered did not contribute to the national economy, and the people who essentially contributed to the national life did not figure anywhere in the entire national discourse! This was the main problem India had to address. Concomitant to this was the problem of mobility between the castes. Any foreigner could enter into the national life at the lowest caste only. Moving up from that caste was indeed nerve-wracking. The upper castes maintained a strict strangle-hold on the entry into their folds. [3]

Economy of India in this period was agriculture based. There was also many other activities like construction, manufacture of articles of daily use from metals, stone & wood, leisure activities, services, etc. This was similar to what was present in various parts of the world at that time. There was only one special activity in India, which was unique. That was Yajna. In due course of time, Yajna occupied the prime position in Indian economy. Any activity in Indian society had meaning only if it was linked to Yajna. How do we make sense of this strange thing? Why did the Yajna become so important in the national economy? Because, the economy was mainly agrarian. It generated enormous surplus in due course of time. Incentive for agriculture was going down since surplus started building up. The surplus had to be consumed. What better way to do that than to burn it all up in a grand fire sacrifice? Religious and social sanction was accorded by the Brahmana for this act.

One of the major problems all societies have had to deal with is the accumulation of political power. Geographies help people to settles down into colonies. Gradually, duties get distributed among the denizens of the colonies. There is always a group of people in those colonies who either take upon themselves, or is authorized by the society, the duty of protecting the rest of the people. Very soon, this group gathers power over other people. This group then starts losing touch with the multitudes that it has to govern. Benevolence gives way to tyranny. This has been the case in every human society. Take the case of the ancient civilizations of the world. The Egyptian, Babylonian, Ionian, Greek, Roman, in fact any number of them. All of them rose to great eminence for some time and then the society imploded. It imploded because the masses that actually formed that society were oppressed in due course of time. This phenomenon of one miniscule part of the society losing connect with the other major portion of itself, leading to oppression of the majority by the minority has always been the bane of human societies all over the world, all through time. India however, seems to have avoided this problem by means of a power struggle between the Brahmana and the Kshatriya castes. Whenever the King became too powerful, and his rise to power took on the shape of oppressing the Vaishya and the Shudra, the Brahmana came in and overthrew the King. Similarly, when the Brahmana’s insistence of religious observations by the masses took on the shape of social oppression over the other three castes, the Kshatriya came in and cut the Brahmana to size. This interplay between the Brahmana and the Kshatriya has kept the Indian society alive through ages, while the absence of this power balance ruined the greatest of civilizations the world over. This self-preservation mechanism of the caste system of the ancient Hindu society is something that is often not recognized by modern historians. This vital aspect of the Varna-system was pointed out by Swami Vivekananda.

The ancient literature records the historic struggle of Vishwamitra to be recognized as a Brahma-Rishi by Vashishtha. This is an example of the struggle entrenched in Indian society for upward mobility. It was possible, but required superhuman effort. The resistance to accept new comers into the Brahmana fold was phenomenal. However, it was not originally intended to be so tough. For instance, in the Chandogya Upanishad, we have the instance of a prostitute’s son Satyakama being inducted into the Brahmana fold, purely on the basis of the qualities of truthfulness that he exhibited. In course of time, this flexibility was lost and people got stuck in the caste into which they were born. Upper mobility was absent. [4]

That was when the national soul opted for a major experiment. It created a Buddha, who dissolved the problem instead of solving it. The main weapon in the hands of the Brahmana was his monopoly over the sacred literature, over the main economic activity called Yajna, and over the entire national education. Buddha proclaimed that spiritual growth was independent of any literature; it was also independent of any procedure. He opened up a new path and invited everyone into it, especially the Kshatriya, Vaishya & the Shudra. He further demolished the central economic activity of the Hindu nation – Yajna. This was aimed at destroying the monopoly of the Brahmana over the national life. Five hundred years later came a period of growth which was unprecedented in Indian history till then. This should have been the end of this civilization, for it had achieved everything and had solved all its problems. Or had it?

Within a thousand years of the Buddha’s arrival, the lower two castes, who had rejected the Varna-system and had adopted the egalitarian Buddhist monolithic system of society, started to degenerate. People require culture in order to hold on to and maintain any high spiritual impulse that they receive. The Indian society of this period consisted of a miniscule Brahmana & a very tiny Kshatriya population, with almost the entire Vaishya & Shudra population adopting the Buddhist scheme of social life. The major portion of the Kshatriya caste too had shifted base to the Buddhist scheme. So what actually happened was this – the Hindu scheme of Varna-system was totally rejected; social, economic & political power concentrated in the people who rejected the Hindu Varna system and proclaimed to follow an alternate scheme propounded by the Buddha. The Brahmana caste became the ‘outcaste’ or the ‘lower caste’ in this new dispensation. This did work for some time. This should have worked forever, but for a small aberration. Culture did not percolate to the masses. Human life consists of activity. They are of two types – activity that gives the daily food; activity that fills up leisure time. Both need to have an overarching goal. This aligning of all human activity toward the same goal is culture. Although national education was along Buddhist lines, it failed to culturally uplift the masses, who had implicitly accepted the Buddhist way of life. The Buddhist way of life was essentially the monastic life. The insistence on monastic life as the central essence of the Buddhist way of life was, in no small measure, a reason for this failure.

But most importantly, the one vital idea missing in the Buddhist scheme of life was the absence of an overarching goal in life.[5] Of course, the learned ones among the audience will at once jump up at me for this statement. Let us understand that philosophy is not powerful enough to inspire the daily life of the common man. Ritual is needed. The ritual has to be so designed as to gradually raise the brute unto civilized man and the civilized man unto a god. This aspect was missing in Buddhism. Bhagawan Buddha avoided all references to God and Spirit. As a result, the common man who had no recourse to disciplined philosophical thinking, ended up making a god of Buddha himself, and working up hideous rituals which exist now as the Left-handed Tantric practices. Buddhism became everything that the Buddha had fought against all his life! If we carefully analyze the reason for the failure of this great experiment on Indian society, the answer lies in the absence of emphasizing a comprehensible goal of human life. It is essential to spell out that goal of human life in comprehensible terms; in other words, the masses must be able to imagine the goal. An unimaginable goal of human life essentially renders society aimless and rudderless. Again, the goal must not be too easy to specify either, as we have with modern Christianity and Islam, in which case, it degenerates into an effete theology, a set of dogmas. This too is ineffective in leading society to anything higher, and man doesn’t grow. All it is effective in achieving is fights and quarrels. Buddha’s experiment and the subsequent religious experiments in India taught this valuable lesson to the Indian soul, the delicate balance while prescribing a goal for mankind.

Since Buddha categorically prohibited Yajna, the backbone of Indian economy got destroyed. Buddha did not give anything new in its place. So, gradually, Indians started engaging in new economic activities. Well, actually the activities were not new, per se. It was only that, the ways in which the activities were handled were new. People now started working for catering to non-local markets. The Yajna had the advantage of confining all economic activity to the local market. With the Yajna gone, people started trading in a big way. New economy set in. Intercourse with other nations became active.

All along its history, India was rich, created enormous amounts of wealth, and its goods and produce were in tremendous demand all over the world. Goods were transported across sea and land to all the lands in the world. The people who gave protection during this economic activity were the Kshatriyas. While the Shudra worked for producing the goods, the Vaishya arranged for their production and transportation, and the Kshatriya arranged for their safety. India was the greatest maritime power for a very long period. We have records of Indian ships sailing to Egypt and Babylon during the Harappa period too. Slowly, the maritime activities stopped. That happens when you have monopoly over the goods you produce. People from other lands could very well come down here and take what they wanted. We wouldn’t go out to sell our products there. Thus the importance of the Kshatriya reduced. [6]

If Buddhism had made a place for the Brahmana in its scheme, perhaps, we would have yet had the perfect civilization.

Social order was totally in chaos. Value of manly qualities was undermined at a national level. Military prowess reduced. Varna system was no longer in vogue. People didn’t know what they were supposed to do. A Brahmana revival was attempted during the Gupta period. Sister Nivedita proposes the theory that the Gupta Kings commissioned the writing of the Vishnu Purana around 400 AD, which marks this part of Indian history. Revolving around the Vishnu Purana, a renewed attempt was made to consolidate the peoples living south of the Indus and the Himalayas up to the Ceylon into one Nation again. Such a consolidation had occurred under King Ashoka during the Buddhist reformation period. But this time, the consolidation would be under the revived Vedic lines. The absorption of the Buddhist reformation had given rise to a highly changed religion in the land, which although called the Vedic religion or Sanatana Dharma still, had very little in common with the pre-Buddhist religion of the land.

In the wake of this development came the hordes of Muslims from Arabia and Persia, bringing with them a fresh spiritual impulse. When they stayed back in India after their initial victories, they tried to establish a new social order, based on equality. Everyone who converted to Islam was equal to every other Muslim in society. This impulse translated as unprecedented growth in literature, architecture, economy and political stability. Against the background of this new stability, the old Hindu scheme of life was once again tried out. Lead by spiritual leaders such as Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhva, Buddhism was completely reabsorbed into the main Hindu body politick. The entire 1000 years of Buddhist reformation turned out to be a mere cul-de-sac in Indian history. What was the Indian society like during the Islam period? Again, a handful of the Brahmana caste held onto the ancient scheme of life. The Vaishya & the Shudra thrived well under the Islamic dispensation, better than ever before in Indian history. The Kshatriya caste almost vanished. A new caste – a cross between the Kshatriya & the Vaishya arose, called Zemindar. This new caste again started monopolizing social and economic power in their own hands and the Shudra was none the better even under the Islamic dispensation in India.

The only drawback seemed to be the displeasure of the masses who were forced to convert to Islam in order to enjoy the benefits of Islamic egalitarianism. But, given a face-off between greater social freedom and adherence to his native religion, man would any day opt for social freedom. The Brahmana, the new Kshatriya-Vaishya Zemindar and the Vaishya did not yet learn that affording social freedom, social dignity and equal opportunity to one another and the Shudra was vital for national life to sustain. The Islamic rulers were actually Kshatriyas in their function.[7] If the Indian society had been flexible enough to have recognized this and if the Muslim invaders too had been flexible enough to have realized this, and had they entered into the Indian body politick, the resulting civilization would again have been the best possible. But that was not to be so. For the first time, we came across a people who insisted on living in our society and who rigidly resisted the caste system. Before the Islamic invasion, the Huns, Shakas and Kushans had come in too. But they were all absorbed into the caste system mostly at the Shudra level, but some at the higher levels, even as Kshatriya kings.[8]

Around this time came the influence of Europe, first with the Portuguese, then the Danes, followed by the French and lastly the British. The last to arrive from Europe, the British, consolidated their foothold in India and event after event led to their annexing the entire land as a colony of the larger British Empire.

This was the worst part of Indian history. No one in the entire Indian society had any freedom. The clash now was between the Indian religious weltanschauung and the European economic world-view. They simply didn’t match, apparently. But the opening out of the entire European world of thought was a new blessing on the Indians. And the oppressive missionary activities of the Christians were the greatest drawback of this period. Education was controlled by the Christian missionaries, who lacked any understanding of sociology, anthropology, psychology and history. They dogmatically drilled the morbid theology of Christianity and totally undermined the entire historical background of the Indians.

It is interesting to note the unique war tactics developed by the Muslims of Arabia. Indians never knew that before Islamic invasion. In India, war was always fought in the city outskirts. Muslims, however, entered living areas inside cities and towns and villages. Common man was attacked and killed. Surprise attacks on the common man were something that the Muslims brought. We don’t find historical evidence of Prophet Mohammed having taught this type of warfare to his followers. In all probabilities, this was a Mongol trait among the Muslims. If we study the history of Islamic Arabia, we find that the Islamic invaders into India were all actually from the Mongol stock. Genghis Khan and his descendants had exterminated the entire male Muslim population during their successive attacks on Arabia & Persia and what we now know as Muslims are actually the Mongols who lived on in that region. What exists as Islam today is the contribution of the Arabian women to the Mongol stock. The fearless Turks that had conquered half of the civilized world and ruled over it are actually from Mongol stock.

The Vaishya produced wealth with the help of the Shudra. Goods were produced that needed to be transported. The Vaishya arranged for the transportation too. However, since the means for transportation was very slow, there was great chance of being waylaid. Goods needed protection. The Kshatriya provided it. Mohammed and his followers, the Muslims, were basically Kshatriyas in this sense. They gave protection to the businessmen and their goods.

In Indian history, the Kshatriyas faced mass annihilation twice; first, by Parashurama, when he vowed to destroy Kartivirya Arjuna; and a second time in the Kurukshetra war of the Mahabharata. That brings up the question, if all the Kshatriyas had been exterminated by Parashurama, who were the Kshatriyas during the Mahabharata War? In all probabilities, what would have happened was that many Kshatriya women must have escaped the wrath of Parashurama. Some of them must have borne children in exile. Again, many weak-bodied Kshatriyas, who did not participate in the battle also must have escaped and must have propagated their clans. We however do not find any instance of the Brahmin caste being mass annihilated in Indian history. This could perhaps explain the steady weakening of the Kshatriya caste in India, which laid the grounds for the subsequent invasions by Islamic and European races on India.

The effort of the Indian mind has always been the following: Human life has the ultimate goal of Self-realization. The way to achieve this is what the Indian mind has been experimenting with, all through its history. In the Vedic period, it tried to do so by formulating a caste system, which dictated what a man should do for living, earning a livelihood, and then how he should spend his leisure time. This ran foul with the inherent principles of natural justice in the sense that one caste always tried to monopolize the entire national life and mobility among the castes was rigidly obstructed. It was like missing the forest and getting lost among the trees. The main aim of instituting the caste system was lost in the social complexities that arose from maintaining the system! Then came the Buddha’s reformation. He was an iconoclast. He broke down the entire caste system and gave nothing in its place. He did not specify what man had to do for achieving the ultimate goal. Therefore the original caste system got revived, albeit in a totally changed form. While the original system was meant to guide man from where he stood up to the ultimate realization of his true nature, the resurrected caste system was devilish in its new form. The Muslim period gave rise to a new caste – the Zemindar. But the masses, who were always included in the Vaishya and Shudra caste were still oppressed. The British period brought a new impetus. The religion they brought, as did the Muslims, was easily included in the Bhakti cults that already existed in India. But the social modes that they brought were all new to India. Having lived in India for quite some time, the Muslims had come to understand that caste was the mode of social functioning for the Indian. The British did not, or rather could not, understand this unique Indian institution. They opened up education to every one under their rule. Thus we had B R Ambedkar (a Shudra by birth) studying to be a barrister alongside Mohandas Gandhi (a Vaishya by birth) and Subhas Chandra Bose (a Kshatriya by birth) and Umesh Chandra Banerjee (a Brahmana by birth)! The universal education system, evolved by Thomas Macaulay with clear selfish aims for the British Empire, broke down the impossibly ossified caste barriers and created a level playing field. This single act has unleashed a power of unimaginable proportions, as the present condition of our country reveals very well.[9] The British rule allowed for all sorts of mobility – upwards & downwards – within the Indian society, based on meritocracy and not by birth.

The greatest contribution of the British to India however was, in our opinion, the concept of “organization”.[10] Why do we say so? Let us re-state our understanding of Indian history. Then we will be able to see the supreme importance of this British contribution.

India, as it were, has fixed the goal of complete self-realization for its citizens. This has been the main strain in its history as we have seen till now. The soul of India wants, as it were, that all Indians should realize their real nature. How are they to do this? India formulated a scheme of life such that all their activities would be wound up so as to converge towards this one goal, which is complete self-realization. Her first attempt to do so, that is, formulate a viable scheme of life for all living in India, ran afoul due to the complications arising out of the caste system. She tried to set it right through one of her most brilliant sons, the Buddha. His attempts, though seemingly very effective, backfired. The final outcome of the Buddhist experiment was that the Kshatriya caste all but disappeared from India, the Vaishya and the Shudra got a taste of social freedom which they could not sustain, and the Brahmana came back with a vengeance. But, the Brahmana who now raised his head again this time was but a caricature of the original Brahmana of the Vedic period. The original Brahmana was a God-realized soul, one who had seen God face to face, even while living in the society as one of us. Whereas, the resurrected Brahmana, in post Buddhist India was a scheming Brahmana, who cooked up an elaborate theosophy of the ten incarnations of the Godhead, the Dasha Avatara, and silently absorbed the Buddha into the Hindu pantheon of gods! The Buddha was accepted and everything he said and did was completely forgotten from the national mind. It was one of the greatest coup-de-etat staged in human history! But, a nation is unsustainable without a strong group of people who specialize in protection and governance. The Brahmana never allowed that group to rise and in due course of time, the situation was back to square one – a weak nation, which was waiting to be overrun by anyone who would care to do so. Indeed, that is what happened. The Islamic hordes came and this grandest nation among all the nations in the known world at that time was conquered, not by the glorious Arabs, but by a slave of the Arabs. He set up his empire here and that was the time the Nation decided it would run another experiment by factoring in Islam in its scheme of things. Again, the ancient Vedic religion immediately saw that Islam could easily be absorbed within the body politick, provided two things were ensured – the invading Muslim had to be absorbed into the Kshatriya caste, and in exchange, there must be a greater social freedom given to the Vaishya and the Shudra in India. The second condition was partially fulfilled by religious conversion of the lower caste people into Islam. We say partially fulfilled because unless the people converted to Islam, if they remained within the Hindu caste structure, they would not enjoy the social freedom! The first condition was not, however, fulfilled. Not only was it not fulfilled, the Islamic invaders stayed back to rule India, but never fully integrated themselves with the Vedic scheme of things that was in vogue here. The rampant dogmatism that the Muslim exhibited was something alien to the Hindu. Just as the Muslim could not learn to integrate with the idolatrous Hindu, the Hindu too could not make sense of this foreigner who resisted any intercourse with his caste system. For, we must realize one thing, and this is vital; the only way a Hindu could make sense of any human being was if he could accommodate himself in one of the four castes. Thus the Greeks and the Huns entered into the Kshatriya caste. Many Mongols were accommodated into the Shudra caste. So also were many who had rejected the Vedic religion and had opted for the Buddha’s version of religion, and had now again opted to be back with the Brahmana’s national resurgence. But this Muslim refused to enter into the caste system. If a person resists entering into any one of the castes, the Hindu is clueless about how to deal with him! That is what happened with the Islamic people. So, we had a situation where we again had a miniscule Brahmana population, no Kshatriya caste worth the name, a sizeable Vaishya population and a huge Shudra mass, alongside a sizeable population of a new type of people – the Muslims (most of whom, were converts from the Shudra caste, with only a handful of Muslims from the original Arabian & Persian stock) – who were not a part of this Varna system.

The same Indian genius that came up with the Dasha Avatara to digest Buddha within itself, now came up with the Sufi religion and the Bhakti movement, as a means of incorporating the Muslim into its body politick. But the invaders’ religion lacked the philosophical flexibility to recognize the utility of such a development and as a result, at some local levels, the integration of the Muslim into the Hindu society was indeed successfully effected by the Sufi and Bhakti attempts. But there remained a virulent strain of Islam that refused to integrate with Hinduism. This was the first time that India had faced such a situation, where it failed to integrate the invaders into its own society and align them to its religious orientation.

When the country was in this stage, there came along a fresh invader, who came in through business and commerce, not like the Muslims had come in, with a sword on a horse (the famous imagery of the incarnation after Buddha, called Kalki, as per the Brahmana!). Having entered the land for the express intent of setting up business, the European stayed back. He even started taking over administrative functions regarding this strange land, but never with the idea of ruling it per se. Every decision of the European rose from the perspective of business. While the Muslim who had entered this land exhibited clear Kshatriya qualities, this European was but a Vaishya at best!

Caste system was completely demolished by the British rule in India. We needed to re-organize Indian society immediately or we were in danger of losing our identity. That is where Swami Vivekananda comes in. He realized that the western concept of organization could fulfil the vacuum created by the demolition of caste system in India. This re-adjustment is what we are still seeing in our society today. We are still in the transition from caste to corporate organization.

One concept that we need to explore is the intimate relation between caste and religion, especially in the Indian context. Time and time again, it has seemed as though caste is a religious institution. It is however not so. Religion has nothing to do with caste, per se.[11] Then, why is it that all the religious leaders in India have worked specifically to breakdown caste system, favoring the upliftment and education of the lower castes and attempting to soften the heart of the upper castes? This is because each of our great religious leaders has tried to remain true to the vision of the founding fathers of the Indian society, the great rishis, so lost in antiquity that today, we do not even know their names for sure. But the power of their vision has driven this nation for over five thousand years, through an unbroken continuity of the institution of Caste. Ask anybody in India and you will be told that caste system is heinous and a blot on Indian society and that it must go. Most of them will even assert vociferously that the institution is now good as dead and exists mainly due to its benefits on the political parties. Caste identities make it very easy to group together and monopolize over large swathes of people, as we have seen time and again since 1947. But the greatest advantage of this institution was to be had only if every citizen had an overarching goal to achieve in his or her life. We must remember that the origin of this institution was in this idea of providing means for realization of the goal of God-realization for every member of society. If we lose that idea of God realization as the goal of our social life, then the institution of caste becomes a terrible bondage. Let me explain this a bit.

Supposing the patent aim of my life is to realize my real nature. How am I go about it? Either by renouncing social life and embracing monastic vows; or by living in society and contributing to the national economy; if I choose to live in society, participate in the national economy, how do I realize Atman? I can do that by working in such a way that my daily work becomes a worshipful offering to God. What will be the work that I will have to do? Who will decide what work I will be doing? Suppose we have a body of authoritative persons in society whose duty it is to allot work to every member of the society. Can anyone ensure impartiality in that allotment? Will such allotments of duty be wholeheartedly accepted and not be challenged? Ah! Therein lay the genius of the institution of caste! My own birth determines what work I will do in my life. The argument is simple: I can realize God by offering whatever work I do as an offering to God; what work I will do is determined by my birth; caste system prescribes and ensures the relation between birth and the work to be done; as long as I haven’t yet attained the state of inner freedom, I belong in a hierarchy in society; there are castes above me and below me; once I achieve the blessed state of real freedom, I break free from the social hierarchy. So, this is how the caste system was envisaged to function in society. This is how it did function for a long time. You will appreciate that this system will function flawlessly, so long as the aim of our life, of our work, of our living in society, is to realize our true nature as the Atman. If that is the aim of our life, then caste system is the best social arrangement imaginable. Now, the whole trouble starts if we lose our grip on that pivotal idea of self- realization. If enjoyment is the aim of life, then this institution stands as a barrier to achieving that aim to our heart’s content.

Against this simple argument, we will be better able to appreciate the reformatory steps adopted by Buddha. He found that the rigid social structure was standing as a barrier to man’s development. He wanted to allow everyone to develop fully and freely. He knew that by pulling down the super-structure, he could unfetter the human soul on its journey to its destiny. At the same time, he was aware that man needed a goal in life. No social system can give that to man. It is only a spiritual impulse that can give an overarching goal to man. He therefore did the sane thing possible; he pulled down the caste system; he prescribed that monasticism was the path to be followed; he further specified that knowledge of one’s real nature was the goal of human life. Similarly did all the other religious reformers in India do the same thing; reiterate that God realization is the goal of human life. If that is fixed, then social life automatically falls into a system that is self-regulatory. Caste system was one such self-regulatory mechanism in human society. The British domination over India opened our eyes to another such wonderful system – the corporate organization.

So, effectively, by the end of 1800 AD, India had learnt that, if God Realization were to be the goal of human life, then human society could indeed be organized into a rigid caste system, which helped everyone to achieve that supreme goal of life. India had also learnt that there will always be a great number of people in its society who will not be able to adopt God realization as the supreme goal of life. Hence India leant that, in such a case, the caste system would be an aberration, an obstacle, a detriment, instead of being a tool to further man’s development. India also learnt in the meanwhile that there were many more societies in the world which did not prescribe to its weltanschauung and that it needed to interact with those societies as well. India had tried to successively experiment with Sanatana Dharma, a variant of itself called Buddhism, then Islam and finally Christianity, with a view to finding the best fit religion for its citizens; when it would find that ideal religion, it would then work out the best means of organizing society and thereby enable all its citizens to live their lives and achieve tangible progress in their evolution. As a result, India found out that none of these religions could be imposed as the only religion on all its citizens. Human nature was too diverse for straitjacketing the human soul in such simplistic terms. India had learnt that its hoary method of caste system for integrating foreigners into its body politick was not efficient, since the Muslims and the Christians refused to enter into the Caste structure, thereby remaining as un-integrated foreign bodies within the living being of Indian society. India awoke to the fact that it needed a readjustment at the very core of its being. This readjustment would begin by redefining its goal in spiritual terms, as it has always done in its long history.

That was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to make sense of the mess that its society had ended up in; that was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to discover which religion, or what mix of the religions available, would be ideal for its citizens; That was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to articulate an overarching goal for its citizens in the modern idiom; That was the time when the Soul of India worked up an instrument through which it would try to hew out a path for multitudes to achieve that goal in their lives. That unique instrument was Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa of Dakshineswar. The biographer of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Saradananda writes that Sri Ramakrishna performed unprecedented spiritual practices, which make no sense unless seen from this historical perspective. There is no need for any human being to undergo such a variety of spiritual practices for one’s own liberation. Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna’s chief disciple, mentions that in Sri Ramakrishna, the soul of India, as it were, was finding its moorings again; the soul of India was working up an essential readjustment whereby it could find a rationale for continuing its existence. What was the self-discovery that the soul of India made through Sri Ramakrishna?

All religions are true. No one religion can claim to appeal to every human being on earth. Each soul approached life in its own unique way and thereby qualifies to its own brand of religion. All the same, each of these religions, or paths of human evolution, is harmonious in their goal. The goal of every religion is perception of the consciousness that is in every human being. In fact, each soul is potentially divine. The goal of human life is to manifest that divinity. Human life itself, therefore, can be envisaged as the Universal Religion, with all the known ‘isms’ being just geographical & cultural variants of the Mother Religion.

Further, religion is realization; religion is perception; religion is not a set of beliefs or customs or traditions; religion is not thoughts, ideas or feelings, no matter how sophisticated or refined. If you don’t know your own true nature, you are not spiritual, no matter what. You are not a Hindu because you are born to a Hindu; you are not a Hindu because you believe in the Vedas and Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita; you are not a Muslim because you believe in Allah, the Prophet Mohamad and the Quran; you are not a Christian because you believe in Bible and the Immaculate Conception. If you have perceived directly the Hindu conception of God, you are a Hindu. If you have perceived directly the Islamic conception of God, you are a Muslim. If you have perceived directly the Christian conception of God, you are a Christian. Not otherwise. A Hindu who has directly perceived the Hindu conception of God will totally and completely understand and accept a Muslim who has directly perceived the Muslim conception of God or a Christian who has directly perceived the Christian conception of God.

In the light of this self-discovery, the Soul of India will now work out a new society wherein every kind of religious thought will be accorded full freedom to unleash the potential divinity within its adherents. In the light of this self-discovery, the Soul of India will work out the necessary corrections in Hinduism, Islam,[12] Christianity,[13] Buddhism and every other religious path known to man till date.[14] In the light of this self-discovery by the Soul of India, we can foresee that the future of India will be dominated by no single religion, but equal opportunity will be accorded to every religion that its citizens would like to follow; the only conditions will be mutual respect to everyone else and a dogged commitment to take one’s avowed religion to its logical conclusion which is a direct perception of one’s true nature. Thus the future of India will be dominated by a ‘Harmony of Religions’ in place of any one religion holding forth on Indian society. [15]

We would beg for a little patience at this juncture since a survey of the present situation doesn’t show anything of this kind happening in our country. The country is right now undergoing a series of vital transformations. A period of transition cannot be read correctly except by hindsight. But, our reading of Indian history, as detailed above, forces us to conclude that a society based on the harmonious existence of all religions will certainly dawn very soon. In the beginning of this article, we had said that perhaps “It seems India wanted to see, to what heights of perfection, man could reach with each of the established religions.” It is but logical to conclude that man will reached unprecedented heights of personal and collective growth under this new regime of ‘harmony of religion’.[16] You will certainly appreciate that we have started our new epoch by adopting a “Constitution”, which is unique in its scope and content. It is a blue-print which will guide how exactly the Indian society will re-organize itself in the centuries to come. The Fundamental Rights, Directive principles of State Policy, and Fundamental Duties comprise the corner stone of our Constitution. You will note how these drive our society towards a caste-free, organization-based structure enabling every citizen to enjoy the fruits of opportunity for life-fulfilment, unhindered by one’s religious affiliation. Moreover, the Constitution ensures, for the first time in India, that the State will not impose any one religion on its citizens, awarding full freedom for each citizen to choose for oneself.[17]

Moreover, Sri Ramakrishna revealed a new goal for mankind. He gave it a name called ‘Bhavamukha’.[18] The Soul of India realized through Sri Ramakrishna that the common man would reach this goal of human life by following the path of ‘Practical Vedanta’ or more specifically known as ‘Karma Yoga’,[19] the details of which were worked out by Swami Vivekananda. Karma Yoga will be the key through which will be unlocked an unprecedented spurt of human growth, such as history has never witnessed till date – such was the prophesy of Swami Vivekananda.

In fact, the present restructuring of the Indian society along the lines of corporate organization in the place of caste system presents an ideal ground for realizing the new ideal revealed by Sri Ramakrishna. Elsewhere we have shown how the civic structure of corporate organization lends itself to the mass spiritual practice of Karma Yoga by everyone in society.[20] We would do well to realize as soon as possible that the European form of organization is indeed a viable alternative to the caste system[21]; it retains the positive points of the ancient caste system in that it allows the interested people in practicing Karma Yoga and moving towards personal life fulfilment; more importantly it has the added advantage[22] of providing an avenue for those people not interested in immediate salvation, to contribute towards collective growth in such a way as to eventually lead them towards the inner life.[23]

It is important to note the course correction[24] that Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda have effected in the history of India. At the risk of appearing repetitive, let me explain this point here. India began its grand journey by specifying that individual freedom is achievable in this very life, even while living. The goal of human life was to be spiritually free while living. If that indeed were the goal, what sort of social arrangement should we have? Caste system was the answer given by our ancient sages. We tried to make it a workable arrangement. Something went wrong along the way. We sort of lost sight of the goal to be achieved and made a big issue of the social arrangement! As a result, life in India became a curse. Buddha tried to sort it out. Buddha said that the goal of human life, the raison deter of our existence was indeed to become the ‘Living Free’, the ‘Awakened One’. However, we need not enroll ourselves into any formal social arrangement for that. Renounce, become a monk and get free. That was the iconoclastic approach of the Buddha. Thus, in effect, Buddha reiterated the goal of human life prescribed by the ancient Rishis, but tore down the social structure they had erected for assisting the common man to achieve the same. He, instead, invited all and sundry into the highest path, directly. Although Buddha’s motive was the finest, such egalitarian approach is impractical, unfortunately. Very soon, the Indian society started crumbling. India tried to bring about reformations within itself from time to time, all of them ensuring only one result – each attempt merely reiterated and strengthened the original idea that the goal of human life was indeed Moksha or individual spiritual freedom. The social mess that the botched caste system experiment had resulted in was not touched in any serious measure.[25] All of the reformers ended up certifying the utility and validity of the caste system, in so far as it threw up perfected individuals from time to time in the Indian society. None seemed to bother that there could be a possibility of masses reaching up to perfection too, and that society need not be designed to effect random individual perfection here & there, now & then, alone.[26] None seemed to be bothered about the possibility, or impossibility, of designing or redesigning society into a mass manufactory of perfected individuals. For, the origin of the caste system was indeed that – to ensure that each member of the society moved forward towards spiritual perfection. In the midst of all this confusion came the Islamic invasion. India saw an opportunity to draw in some new blood into its body and see if a new way could thereby be opened up for achieving its goal – a method of living to bring about mass perfection among its members. The Islamic invasion turned out to be a disaster since the invaders could not integrate into the society they had conquered. As a result, the already confused Indian society now had to contend with an added element of confusion, a significant portion of society that refused to blend into the culture and religion of the major portion of society.[27] Even while India was coming to terms with the peculiar situation of its society consisting of two apparently irreconcilable groups of people, there came a new impulse in the form of the European invasion. The invading European stood as a mirror to the hypocrisy underlying the Indian society. The invading European, although professing to be religious, quoting the Lord Jesus Christ on and off, was patently materialistic. He believed in enjoying this life here on earth. But there is always the fear of death. He had overcome that by cooking up a very clever theology of the original sin and the son-hood of Jesus and universal emancipation by merely believing in Jesus’s status as the Son of God. It was a stroke of genius of a much higher level than the devious Brahmin could imagine! In one shot, you had it all. You could now enjoy as much as you wanted here in this life, and have a cozy passage to heaven, post-mortem! This resonated with the pleasure-seeking urges of many individuals in the Indian society. India understood that not all her children can really seek to know their true nature. Many of her children really wished to enjoy this life, this world. The means provided by the caste system did not encourage enjoyment in this life. Life was one long self-sacrifice under the older scheme of things. But then, Moksha need not be imposed as the goal of life on every member of society. Controlled enjoyment (or Dharma, as it is called in Indian terms) could indeed be prescribed as the goal of many interested individuals. “Dharma aviruddha bhuteshu kamosmi Bhatarshaba” says the Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Can we have a social arrangement for such people too in India?

The combination of the European corporate organization and Karma yoga achieves just that![28] Karma Yoga is a versatile tool for achieving both the ends of human life – personal Moksha and collective development (Atmano Mokshartham, Jagadhitaya cha, as Swami Vivekananda termed it). Karma Yoga is the ritual for the modern age. Sri Ramakrishna reminds us again and again in the pages of his recorded conversations “The Gospel of Ramakrishna” that the goal of human life is God-realization. But everyone need not renounce the pleasures of the senses and dedicate oneself to God-realization. A select few, who voluntarily opt to do so may, indeed do so. The rest of us should hold onto to God with one hand and enjoy the world with the other. This ‘holding onto God with hand and enjoying life with the other’ is called Karma Yoga.

Swami Vivekananda prophesied that this formidable combination would lead to a situation in India which he described as follows: “There were times in olden days when prophets were many in every society. The time is to come when prophets will walk through every street in every city in the world. In olden times, particular, peculiar persons were, so to speak, selected by the operations of the laws of society to become prophets. The time is coming when we shall understand that to become religious means to become a prophet, that none can become religious until he or she becomes a prophet. We shall come to understand that the secret of religion is not being able to think and say all these thoughts; but, as the Vedas teach, to realize them, to realize newer and higher one than have ever been realized, to discover them, bring them to society; and the study of religion should be the training to make prophets. The schools and colleges should be training grounds for prophets. The whole universe must become prophets; and until a man becomes a prophet, religion is a mockery and a byword unto him. We must see religion, feel it, realize it in a thousand times more intense a sense than that in which we see the wall.”

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[1]We must create a history of India in living terms. Up to the present, that history, as written by the English, practically begins with Warren Hastings, and crams in certain unavoidable preliminaries, which cover a few thousand years…The history of India has yet to be written for the first time. It has to be humanized, emotionalized, made the trumpet-voice and evangel of the race that inhabit India.” Sister Nivedita.

[2] Nowadays everybody blames those who constantly look back to their past. It is said that so much looking back to the past is the cause of all India’s woes. To me, on the contrary, it seems that the opposite is true. So long as they forgot the past, the Hindu nation remained in a state of stupor; and as soon as they have begun to look into their past, there is on every side a fresh manifestation of life. It is out of this past that the future has to be molded; this past will become the future. The more, therefore, the Hindus study the past, the more glorious will be their future, and whoever tries to bring the past to the door of everyone, is a great benefactor to his nation. The degeneration of India came not because the laws and customs of the ancients were bad, but because they were not allowed to be carried to their legitimate conclusions. Reply to the Address of the Maharaja of Khetri.

[3] There seem to be no written records of the history of this period available today. However, Swami Vivekananda reconstructs the main strain of the history of this period from the hints available in the Vedas, Upanishads and the Epics. His insights in this regard are available in his masterly writing ‘Modern India’, and elsewhere too. For instance, cf: Reply to the address of the Maharaja of Khetri.

[4]  Vasishtha, Narada, Satyakama Jabala, Vyasa, Kripa, Drona, Karna, and others of questionable parentage were raised to the position of a Brahmin or a Kshatriya, in virtue of their superior learning or valor; but it remains to be seen how the prostitute, maidservant, fisherman, or the charioteer class was benefited by these upliftings. Again, on the other hand, the fallen from the Brahmin, the Kshatriya, or the Vaishya class were always brought down to fill the ranks of the Shudras.: Modern India

[5] The aims of the Buddhistic and the Vedic religions are the same, but the means adopted by the Buddhistic are not right. If the Buddhistic means were correct, then why have we been thus hopelessly lost and ruined? It will not do to say that the efflux of time has naturally wrought this. Can time work, transgressing the laws of cause and effect? Therefore, though the aims are the same, the Bauddhas for want of right means have degraded India. Perhaps my Bauddha brothers will be offended at this remark, and fret and fume; but there’s no help for it; the truth ought to be told, and I do not care for the result.: East & the West

[6] The Portuguese, in the meantime, discovered a new route to India, doubling Africa. The fortune of India smiled on Portugal — then came the turn of the French, the Dutch, the Danes, and the English. Indian commerce, Indian revenue and all are now in the possession of the English; it is therefore that they are the foremost of all nations now. But now, Indian products are being grown in countries like America and elsewhere, even better than in India, and she has therefore lost something of her prestige. This the Europeans are unwilling to admit. That India, the India of ‘natives’, is the chief means and resources of their wealth and civilization, is a fact which they refuse to admit, or even understand. We too, on our part, must not cease to bring it home to them.: Memoirs of European Travels

[7] Crushing the Brahminical supremacy under his feet the Mussulman king was able to restore to a considerable extent the lost glories of such dynasties of emperors as the Maurya, the Gupta, the Andhra, and the Kshatrapa. (The Persian governors of Aryavarta and Gujarat.) : Modern India

[8] Kanishka, the famous Kushana King is an instance; he belonged to a tribe that had come in from Central Asia, and the entire tribe was absorbed into the Caste system.

[9] This power is so new, its nature and workings are so foreign to the Indian mind, its rise so inconceivable, and its vigor so insuperable that though it wields the suzerain power up till now, only a handful of Indians understand what this power is. We are talking of the occupation of India by England: Modern India.

[10] For a detailed study of Organization according to Swami Vivekananda, please see: ‘Swami Vivekananda & Organization’: http://wp.me/p8xvki-H

[11] Was anybody persecuted in India for choosing his Ishta Devata, or becoming an atheist or agnostic even, so long as he obeyed the social regulations? Society may punish anybody by its disapprobation for breaking any of its regulations, but no man, the lowest Patita (fallen), is ever shut out from Moksha. You must not mix up the two together. Reply to the Madras Address.

[12] “Whether we call it Vedantism or any ism, the truth is that Advaitism is the last word of religion and thought, and the only position from which one can look upon all religions and sects with love. I believe it is the religion of the future enlightened humanity. The Hindus may get the credit of arriving at it earlier than other races, they being an older race than either the Hebrew or the Arab; yet practical Advaitism, which looks upon and behaves to all mankind as one’s own soul, was never developed among the Hindus universally. On the other hand, my experience is that if ever any religion approached to this equality in an appreciable manner, it is Islam and Islam alone. Therefore I am firmly persuaded that without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they may be, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind.” Letters of Swami Vivekananda: Here, we find the genius of Swami Vivekananda working out a course-correction for Islam, which may seem anathema right now, but, will certainly come to be accepted as the norm in the future. We say this because, man’s innate urge for survival will make him seek out paths and means for peaceful co-existence, in the long run!

[13]In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Hindu calls this Maya, the manifestation of God, because it is the power of God. The Absolute reflecting through the universe is what we call nature. The Word has two manifestations — the general one of nature, and the special one of the great Incarnations of God — Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Ramakrishna. Christ, the special manifestation of the Absolute, is known and knowable. The Absolute cannot be known: we cannot know the Father, only the Son. We can only see the Absolute through the ‘tint of humanity’, through Christ. In the first five verses of John is the whole essence of Christianity: each verse is full of the profoundest philosophy.: Inspired talks. Just observe how Swamiji says that the whole essence of Christianity is in these five verses. However, the present day version of Christianity doesn’t revolve around these ideas. It stands on the ideas of Immaculate Conception, Original Sin, Emancipation through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Bringing it back to these five verses will be the course correction needed. Realization of Christ in our own consciousness will then define a Christian, and not adherence to dogmas.

[14] And as the Vedas are the only scriptures which teach this real absolute God, of which all other ideas of God are but minimized and limited visions; as the ‘The well-wisher to all the world.’ Shruti takes the devotee gently by the hand, and leads him from one stage to another, through all the stages that are necessary for him to travel to reach the Absolute; and as all other religions represent one or other of these stages in an unprogressive and crystallized form, all the other religions of the world are included in the nameless, limitless, eternal Vedic religion. Reply to the Madras Address.

[15] We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but the varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose that path that suits him best. Letters of Swami Vivekananda

[16]  What new revolution will be effected in India by her clash with the new giant power, and as the result of that revolution what new transformation is in store for future India, cannot be inferred from her past history.: Modern India

[17] The Fundamental RightsDirective Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties are sections of the Constitution of India that prescribe the fundamental obligations of the State to its citizens and the duties of the citizens to the State. These sections comprise a constitutional bill of rights for government policy-making and the behavior and conduct of citizens. These sections are considered vital elements of the constitution, which was developed between 1947 and 1949 by the Constituent Assembly of India. The Fundamental Rights is defined as the basic human rights of all citizens. These rights, defined in Part III of the Constitution, apply irrespective of race, place of birth, religion, caste, creed, or gender. They are enforceable by the courts, subject to specific restrictions. The Directive Principles of State Policy are guidelines for the framing of laws by the government. These provisions, set out in Part IV of the Constitution, are not enforceable by the courts, but the principles on which they are based are fundamental guidelines for governance that the State is expected to apply in framing and passing laws. The Fundamental Duties are defined as the moral obligations of all citizens to help promote a spirit of patriotism and to uphold the unity of India. These duties, set out in Part IV–A of the Constitution, concern individuals and the nation. (From Wikipedia)

[18] For a detailed discussion on this new ideal, please refer “The new ideal, the new doctrine, the new life” at: http://wp.me/p8xvki-Z

[19] For a detailed discussion on Karma Yoga, please refer “The efficacy of Karma Yoga” at: http://wp.me/p8xvki-2l and “Swami Vivekananda’s Karma Yoga – the scripture of modern mankind” at http://wp.me/p8xvki-2c

[20] Please see: ‘Swami Vivekananda & Organization’: http://wp.me/p8xvki-H

[21] With us, the prominent idea is Mukti; with the Westerners, it is Dharma. What we desire is Mukti; what they want is Dharma. Here the word ‘Dharma’ is used in the sense of the Mimamsakas. What is Dharma? Dharma is that which makes man seek for happiness in this world or the next. Dharma is established on work, Dharma is impelling man day and night to run after and work for happiness….The object of the peoples of Europe is to exterminate all in order to live themselves. The aim of the Aryans is to raise all up to their own level, nay, even to a higher level than themselves. The means of European civilization is the sword; of the Aryans, the division into different Varnas. This system of division into different Varnas is the stepping-stone to civilization, making one rise higher and higher in proportion to one’s learning and culture. In Europe, it is everywhere victory to the strong and death to the weak. In the land of Bharata, every social rule is for the protection of the weak.: East & the West

[22]  On the advent of Buddhism, Dharma was entirely neglected, and the path of Moksha alone became predominant. Hence, we read in the Agni Purana, in the language of similes, that the demon Gayasura — that is, Buddha tried to destroy the world by showing the path of Moksha to all; and therefore the Devas held a council and by stratagem set him at rest for ever. However, the central fact is that the fall of our country, of which we hear so much spoken, is due to the utter want of this Dharma. If the whole nation practices and follows the path of Moksha, that is well and good; but is that possible? Without enjoyment, renunciation can never come; first enjoy and then you can renounce. Otherwise, if the whole nation, all of a sudden, takes up Sannyasa, it does not gain what it desires, but it loses what it had into the bargain — the bird in the hand is fled, nor is that in the bush caught. When, in the heyday of Buddhist supremacy, thousands of Sannyasins lived in every monastery, then it was that the country was just on the verge of its ruin! The Bauddhas, the Christians, the Mussulmans, and the Jains prescribe, in their folly, the same law and the same rule for all. That is a great mistake; education, habits, customs, laws, and rules should be different for different men and nations, in conformity with their difference of temperament. What will it avail, if one tries to make them all uniform by compulsion? The Bauddhas declared, “Nothing is more desirable in life than Moksha; whoever you are, come one and all to take it.” I ask, “Is that ever possible?” “You are a householder; you must not concern yourself much with things of that sort: you do your Svadharma (natural duty)” — thus say the Hindu scriptures. Exactly so! He who cannot leap one foot, is going to jump across the ocean to Lanka in one bound! Is it reason? You cannot feed your own family or dole out food to two of your fellow-men, you cannot do even an ordinary piece of work for the common good, in harmony with others — and you are running after Mukti! The Hindu scriptures say, “No doubt, Moksha is far superior to Dharma; but Dharma should be finished first of all”. The Bauddhas were confounded just there and brought about all sorts of mischief. Non-injury is right; “Resist not evil” is a great thing — these are indeed grand principles; but the scriptures say, “Thou art a householder; if anyone smites thee on thy cheek, and thou dost not return him an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, thou wilt verily be a sinner.” Manu says, “When one has come to kill you, there is no sin in killing him, even though he be a Brahmin” (Manu, VIII. 350). This is very true, and this is a thing which should not be forgotten. Heroes only enjoy the world. Show your heroism; apply, according to circumstances, the fourfold political maxims of conciliation, bribery, sowing dissensions, and open war, to win over your adversary and enjoy the world — then you will be Dharmika (righteous). Otherwise, you live a disgraceful life if you pocket your insults when you are kicked and trodden down by anyone who takes it into his head to do so; your life is a veritable hell here, and so is the life hereafter. This is what the Shastras say. Do your Svadharma — this is truth, the truth of truths. This is my advice to you, my beloved co-religionists. Of course, do not do any wrong, do not injure or tyrannize over anyone, but try to do good to others as much as you can. But passively to submit to wrong done by others is a sin — with the householder. He must try to pay them back in their own coin then and there. The householder must earn money with great effort and enthusiasm, and by that must support and bring comforts to his own family and to others, and perform good works as far as possible. If you cannot do that, how do you profess to be a man? You are not a householder even — what to talk of Moksha for you!!: East and the West

[23] Now, this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, is the path of welfare of all societies in every land, the ladder to ultimate freedom. With the decay of this Jati Dharma, this Svadharma, has come the downfall of our land. But the Jati Dharma or Svadharma as commonly understood at present by the higher castes is rather a new evil, which has to be guarded against. They think they know everything of Jati Dharma, but really they know nothing of it. Regarding their own village customs as the eternal customs laid down by the Vedas, and appropriating to themselves all privileges, they are going to their doom! I am not talking of caste as determined by qualitative distinction, but of the hereditary caste system. I admit that the qualitative caste system is the primary one; but the pity is qualities yield to birth in two or three generations. Thus the vital point of our national life has been touched; otherwise, why should we sink to this degraded state? Read in the Gita, “I should then be the cause of the admixture of races, and I should thus ruin these beings.” How came this terrible Varna-Samkarya — this confounding mixture of all castes — and disappearance of all qualitative distinctions? Why has the white complexion of our forefathers now become black? Why did the Sattvaguna give place to the prevailing Tamas with a sprinkling, as it were, of Rajas in it? That is a long story to tell, and I reserve my answer for some future occasion. For the present, try to understand this, that if the Jati Dharma be rightly and truly preserved, the nation shall never fall. If this is true, then what was it that brought our downfall? That we have fallen is the sure sign that the basis of the Jati Dharma has been tampered with. Therefore, what you call the Jati Dharma is quite contrary to what we have in fact. First, read your own Shastras through and through, and you will easily see that what the Shastras define as caste-Dharma has disappeared almost everywhere from the land. Now try to bring back the true Jati Dharma, and then it will be a real and sure boon to the country. What I have learnt and understood, I am telling you plainly. I have not been imported from some foreign land to come and save you, that I should countenance all your foolish customs and give scientific explanations for them; it does not cost our foreign friends anything, they can well afford to do so. You cheer them up and heap applause upon them, and that is the acme of their ambition. But if dirt and dust be flung at your faces, it falls on mine too! Don’t you see that?: East and the West

[24] Now you understand clearly where the soul of this ogress is — it is in religion. Because no one was able to destroy that, therefore the Hindu nation is still living, having survived so many troubles and tribulations. Well, One Indian scholar asks, “What is the use of keeping the soul of the nation in religion? Why not keep it in social or political independence, as is the case with other nations?” It is very easy to talk like that. If it be granted, for the sake of argument, that religion and spiritual independence, and soul, God, and Mukti are all false, even then see how the matter stands. As the same fire is manifesting itself in different forms, so the same one great Force is manifesting itself as political independence with the French, as mercantile genius and expansion of the sphere of equity with the English, and as the desire for Mukti or spiritual independence with the Hindu. Be it noted that by the impelling of this great Force, has been molded the French and the English character, through several centuries of vicissitudes of fortune; and also by the inspiration of that great Force, with the rolling of thousands of centuries, has been the present evolution of the Hindu national character. I ask in all seriousness — which is easier, to give up our national character evolved out of thousands of centuries, or your grafted foreign character of a few hundred years? Why do not the English forget their warlike habits and give up fighting and bloodshed, and sit calm and quiet concentrating their whole energy on making religion the sole aim of their life?: East and the West

[25] And, oh, how my heart ached to think of what we think of the poor, the low, in India. They have no chance, no escape, no way to climb up. The poor, the low, the sinner in India have no friends, no help — they cannot rise, try however they may. They sink lower and lower every day, they feel the blows showered upon them by a cruel society, and they do not know whence the blow comes. They have forgotten that they too are men. And the result is slavery. Thoughtful people within the last few years have seen it, but unfortunately laid it at the door of the Hindu religion, and to them, the only way of bettering is by crushing this grandest religion of the world. Hear me, my friend, I have discovered the secret through the grace of the Lord. Religion is not in fault. On the other hand, your religion teaches you that every being is only your own self multiplied. But it was the want of practical application, the want of sympathy — the want of heart. The Lord once more came to you as Buddha and taught you how to feel, how to sympathize with the poor, the miserable, the sinner, but you heard Him not. Your priests invented the horrible story that the Lord was here for deluding demons with false doctrines! True indeed, but we are the demons, not those that believed. And just as the Jews denied the Lord Jesus and are since that day wandering over the world as homeless beggars, tyrannized over by everybody, so you are bond-slaves to any nation that thinks it worthwhile to rule over you. Ah, tyrants! You do not know that the obverse is tyranny, and the reverse slavery. The slave and the tyrant are synonymous. Balaji and G. G. may remember one evening at Pondicherry — we were discussing the matter of sea-voyage with a Pandit, and I shall always remember his brutal gestures and his Kadapi Na (never)! They do not know that India is a very small part of the world, and the whole world looks down with contempt upon the three hundred millions of earthworms crawling upon the fair soil of India and trying to oppress each other. This state of things must be removed, not by destroying religion but by following the great teachings of the Hindu faith, and joining with it the wonderful sympathy of that logical development of Hinduism — Buddhism. A hundred thousand men and women, fired with the zeal of holiness, fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and the fallen and the downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising-up — the gospel of equality. No religion on earth preaches the dignity of humanity in such a lofty strain as Hinduism, and no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and the low in such a fashion as Hinduism. The Lord has shown me that religion is not in fault, but it is the Pharisees and Sadducees in Hinduism, hypocrites, who invent all sorts of engines of tyranny in the shape of doctrines of Paramarthika and Vyavaharika. Letter to Alasinga on 20th Aug 1893 from USA

[26] But you may ask—what is the place of Ramakrishna in this scheme? He is the method, that wonderful unconscious method! He did not understand himself. He knew nothing of England or the English, save that they were queer folk from over the sea. But he lived that great life, and I read the meaning. Never a word of condemnation for any! Once I had been attacking one of our sects of Diabolists. I had been raving on for three hours, and he had listened quietly. ‘Well, well !’ said the old man as I finished, ‘perhaps every house may have a back door. Who knows?’ Hitherto, the great fault of our Indian religion has lain in its knowing only two words – renunciation and Mukti. Only Mukti here! Nothing for the householder! But these are the very people whom I want to help. For are not all souls of the same quality? Is not the goal of all the same? And so strength must come to the nation through education. Master as I saw him;

Cf also: The wicked pay the price of the great soul’s holiness. Think of that when you see a wicked man. Just as the poor man’s labor pays for the rich man’s luxury, so is it in the spiritual world. The terrible degradation of the masses in India is the price nature pays for the production of great souls like Mira-bai, Buddha, etc. Inspired Talks

[27] What I mean to say is this – India learnt that Buddhism and Jainism, two new variants of Hinduism that sprang forth with great vitality, could be absorbed back into Hinduism, India’s avowed religion. So also with the occasional invaders such as the Greeks (both Macedonians & Ionians), the Mongols, the Huns, the Tartars, the Shakas (also known as Scythians), the Kushans, the Pahlavas (also known as Parthians), etc, all of whom were successfully absorbed into Hinduism and no trace was left of the invaders’ religion in the Indian society. With the advent of Islam in its midst, it found that it could not absorb it as it had always done in the past.

[28] The faithful householder was as essential to the Sanatana Dharma as the faithful monk. The inviolability of marriage and the inviolability of the monastic vow were obverse and reverse of a single medal. Without noble citizenship, there could be no mighty apostolate. Without the secular, no sacerdotal, without temporal, no spiritual; thus all was one, yet no detail might be willfully neglected, for through each atom shone the whole. It was in fact his own old message in a new form. Integrity of character, as he and his Master before him, had insisted, was a finer offering than religious ecstasy. Without strength to hold, there was no achievement in surrender. Master as I saw him

 

The Desert Fathers

One of the finest expressions of Christian monasticism was in the deserts of Egypt in the 4th Century AD. Actually it encompassed the deserts of Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Arabia. Here, every form of monasticism, every kind of experiment, every kind of extreme asceticism was tried and documented. This document called Apothegmata Patrum or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is a valuable handbook for spiritual life, not just for Christian monks, but for all genuine seekers of spirituality. Some of the lives of the Desert Fathers too were recorded as the Vitae Patrum or Lives of the Desert Fathers, important of them being the Life of Father Anthony.

By 400 AD, Egypt was a land of hermits & monks. There were three main types of monastic experiments there, corresponding roughly to three geographical locations.

  1. Lower Egypt – the Hermit Life: Anthony the Great is generally considered the founder of this monastic lifestyle. He was a Coptic Christian[1] and a layman. He was unlettered and the son of a well-to-do peasant. One day in Church, he heard the saying of Jesus Christ, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor and come and follow me”, as a commandant addressed to himself. He withdrew himself from society and went further & further into the deserts of Egypt seeking solitude. It is said he lived up to a ripe age of 105 years. He started a tradition of eremitic monks that created a rich repertoire of sayings of the Apothegmata Patrum.

 

  1. Upper Egypt – Coenobitic monasticism: At Tabennisi in the Thebaid, Pachomius started an organized monasticism. These were not hermits. They were communities of brothers united to each other in work & prayer. Although Pachomius’ experiment was vital for the development of Christian monasticism, there are not many sayings available from this tradition.

 

  1. Nitrea & Scetis – groups of ascetics: A third form of monastic life evolved at Nitria & Scetis. Several monks lived together in a ‘Lavra’ or ‘Skete’, often as disciples of an Abba. This is something similar to the Akhada form of monastic life of the Hindu monks. Nitria was on the western side of the Nile delta, nearer to Alexandria and therefore formed a natural gateway to Scetis. It was place of confluence between the world and the desert, where visitors could meet the Fathers and benefit from their interactions. John Cassian, the most important historian whose work actually brought the marvelous lives of these wonderful monks to the light of the world, too met with the Desert Tradition here at Nitria. Since Nitria was nearer to Alexandria, there was perceptible Greek influence on the monks of this tradition, which resulted in these monks developing the culture of knowledge along with their regular monastic practices of work & prayer. A large number of the entries of the Apothegmata Patrum come from this tradition.

 

Apart from these three broad classifications, there was a fourth kind too. It comprised of a most extreme form of ascetic life, led by monks who were assiduously reclusive, not meeting with anyone at all. The monks maintained relentless prayer and hard labor, apart from some forbidding forms of physical austerities such as the famous Simeon Stylites. Father Simeon lived on top of a 50 foot pillar for forty years, outside Antioch! These monks lived naked and went about in chains; they lived unsettled lives, eating whatever they found in the woods.

Yet another important figure of this period was St. Basil of Cappadocia, Asia Minor. He and his followers were theologians and writers, who followed a more learned and liturgical monasticism compared to the simple ascetic life of the other Egyptian Desert Fathers.

The Sayings:

The essence of the spirituality of the desert is that it was not taught, but caught. It was a whole way of life. It was not a doctrine or a pre-determined plan of ascetic practice that could be learned and applied. The Father or ‘Abba’ was not the equivalent of the Diksha Guru of the Hindus. This distinction becomes important because, we have to realize that there was no systematic way in the teachings of these desert fathers. They worked hard and lived an entire life striving to re-direct every aspect of their body, mind and consciousness to God, and that is what they talked about.

In this sense, the Apothegmata Patrum is very similar to the Upanishads of the Hindus. While the Upanishads extant today note the important discoveries of the Hindu sages in the realm of consciousness, the exact paths they followed to achieve those discoveries are no longer available in the texts. Some argue that the Vidyas in the Upanishads are actually those paths, but the language is so archaic that the context is now all but lost. The Apothegmata Patrum, on the other hand, does not speak in much detail about the discoveries of the monks, as it does in great detail about the struggles and techniques to overcome those struggles in the lives of those pioneer monks. Therein lies its importance to the spiritual aspirant of the present day.

Yet another point of similarity between the Apothegmata & the Upanishad is that both are basically journals of the spiritual endeavor of genuine seekers of Truth. Both have no author to whom the extant works may be ascribed. While the Apothegmata consists solely of the sayings of monks & nuns, the Upanishads contain references to many Kings & married persons too, apart from monastic recluses.

The tradition of early desert monasticism reached the West chiefly through the writings of John Cassian[2]. The writings of Jerome, Rufinus and Palladius too contributed in no small way. These men knew the desert, and they knew, at first-hand, the oral tradition of the Apothegmata. They systematized it, interpreted it, and presented it as they understood it. The Apothegmata however is invaluable because it is the unabridged collection of the sayings, without any theological corrections or dialectical editing.

The Apothegmata Patrum comprises short sayings originally delivered to individuals on specific occasions and written down later. Groups of monks would preserve the sayings of their founder or of some monks especially remembered by them, and this nucleus would be enlarged and rearranged as time passed. The original form of the sayings was presumably Coptic or Greek. The extant records are in Coptic, Greek, Armenian, Latin and also the Slavonic languages.

These sayings preserve the unstructured wisdom of the desert in simple language. These are records of practical advice given out of a long life of experience in monastic discipline. For this reason, they are not always consistent with one another and they always need to be read within the context in which they are given.

A note of warning is needed here. These are not abstract ideas to be applied indiscriminately, but are instances of what was said in particular situations.

Before we begin a study of the Apothegmata, we must study some important terms that are repeatedly used in the Sayings. These terms have specific meaning, without grasping which, we may not understand the real import of the Sayings.

The Father:

Indians can truly appreciate the role of the Father as presented in the Apothegmata. The Father was vital, in the literal sense, ‘the Giver of Life’ to the young recluse novitiate-monks. However, there was no known tradition of the Diksha in the Desert. The Father, thus, presents himself more as a facilitator, a spiritual mentor, rather than as a Guru. The Father however was an acclaimed knower of God, and not just a learned person, well versed in the scriptures.

The Father is generally called ‘Abba’ in the Apothegmata. But there are many instances where he is also called ‘The Old Man’. There are even instances where he is referred to merely as ‘The Monk’ or as ‘Brother’. But in any case, he had to be a man of genuine spiritual achievements, and not just a man old in years. Moreover, the Father did not consider himself as someone hierarchically above the other monks in the Desert. He considered himself at least par with everyone else, if not inferior to others.

The key phrase in the Apothegmata is ‘Speak a word, Abba.’ This recurs again and again, and the ‘word’ that was sought was not a theological explanation, nor was it ‘counseling’, nor a mantra, nor even any kind of dialogue in which one argued the point. It was a statement from the Abba that was representative of a relationship, something that would give life to the disciple if it were received. The relationship between the Abba and his novice was that of a real father and his begotten son. Only, in the Desert, this Father would beget his son in spirit. A monk had only one Abba. And again, with his Abba, he would not go on discussing his spiritual state with him. There is a great economy of words about the Desert.

There was also visible a great discernment on the part of the Fathers. Many came to them for hearing the ‘word’. But they were very selective in speaking to those who approached them. The Fathers were shrewd enough to know that some of those who came to them were moved by curiosity rather than devotion, and they discerned the genuine ‘hearers’ of the word, whom they called ‘visitors from Jerusalem’, from the superficial and curious, whom they called ‘visitors from Babylon’. The latter were given a bowl of soup and sent away. The former were welcome to stay all night in conversation.

This record in the Apothegmata will clarify the extremely high level of integrity of the Father-monk relationship. A monk once came to Basil of Caesarea and said, ‘Speak a word, Father’. Basil replied, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.’ The monk went away at once. Twenty years later he came back and said, ‘Father, I have struggled to keep your word; now speak another word to me.’ Now the Father said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Again the monk returned in obedience to his cell to keep that also.

The Cell:

The cell was of central importance in their asceticism. They said, ‘Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.’ The point was that unless a man could find God here, in this one place, his cell, he would not find him by going somewhere else. But they had no illusions about what it meant to stay in the cell. It meant to stay there in mind as well as in body. To stay there in body, but to think about the outside world, was already to have left it! The cell was therefore the pivot around which the monk would come to terms with reality.

A cell was a hut or a cave. Generally a single monk occupied a cell, but there are instances when a cell was shared by two brothers too. These buildings were scattered about the desert out of ear-shot of each other. A group of such cells constituted a ‘Lavra’. Even in a monastery [or a coenobium, as it was then called], it was the cell that was the dwelling place of the monks and nuns.

Ascesis:

This is a technical term we often find in the Apothegmata. It means ‘the hard work of being a monk’. The Fathers had a deep understanding of the connection between man’s spiritual and natural life. This gave them a concern for the body which was part of their life of prayer. Much of their advice was concerned with what to eat, where to sleep, where to live, what to do with gifts, and what to do about the passions. The passions were personalized as the handiwork of demons, in their simplistic terms. This aspect of warfare with the passions was the major concern in the Desert. The desert itself was the place of final warfare with the passions. The monks were considered as ‘sentries who keep watch on the walls of the city’. The entries in the Apothegmata show that the monks were always meeting the demons face to face.

Once Abba Macarius asked the Devil as to why he looked so depressed. The Devil replied, ‘You have defeated me because of your humility.’ Macarius put his hands over his ears and fled.

But, most of the advice given was not about objective, personalized demons, nor was it about holy thoughts, or the patterns of the spiritual life, or the dark night of the soul. While the major portion of the sayings in the Apothegmata concern the ordinary Christian Charity [which is again a technical term, which will be explained below], an equally good amount of the sayings deal with the vices. The knowledge of how to deal with the passions was learnt slowly, by long, hard living, but it was the invaluable treasure for which men came to the Fathers in the Desert. This aspect of warfare with the demons was called ‘Ascesis’.


 

Work:

In the Apothegmata, it is used in two senses. It refers to the manual labor that all monks were engaged in. it more importantly also meant the spiritual exertion of the monks. The desert fathers saw both these aspects as one. There was actually no distinction between these two aspects in their mind. However, for a monk, the idea of ‘interior’ work predominates.

Charity:

This is a vital term in understanding the sayings of the Desert fathers. Charity is a term that includes innumerable ideas and therefore has innumerable colors. The goal of all the practices that the desert monks performed was realization of the spirit. The way to that realization was called ‘Charity’. In Hindu terms, this was something similar to ‘Sadhana’, although the Hindu term would encompass the concept of ascesis too. Charity implied wholeheartedness and personal integrity. Charity implied complete absorption in the job at hand. Charity implied complete self-abnegation and total involvement in the person before us at the moment. The present day equivalence between the word charity and helping a person in need actually derives from this aspect of self-abnegation and total involvement in the other person. We shall give four examples from the Apothegmata to elaborate this concept of Charity according to the Desert fathers:

The old men received guests as Christ would receive them. They might live austerely themselves, but when visitors came they hid their austerity and welcomed them. A brother said, ‘Forgive me, father, for I have made you break your rule.’ The old man said, ‘My rule is to receive you with hospitality and send you on your way in peace.’

One monk was moved to question the difference between the monk who received visitors and the one who did not. He was actually vexed with the totally differing behaviors of two fathers Arsenius and Moses. Arsenius had received him and sat down again to pray in silence, until the brother felt uncomfortable and left. Moses came out to greet him with open arms, and they talked all day with joy. That night the monk had a vision. He saw Arsenius in a boat with the Holy Spirit, sailing quietly along the river of life. He saw Moses in a similar boat with an Angel, and they were eating honey-cakes. So he knew that both ways were acceptable to God. [What we have to note here is that it was the inner sincerity that counted and not the superficial behavior of the monks.]

The monks said that Macarius was like God, ‘who shields the world and bears the sin of all’. So he shielded the brethren. When someone sinned he would not hear or see it.

Moses, the black man who had been a robber in his pre-monastic life, heard one day that a brother was to be brought before a council and judged. So he came also, carrying a basket full of sand. When his turn came, he said, ‘How shall I judge my brother when my sins run out behind me like the sand in this basket?’

Prayer:

When the term Prayer is used in the Apothegmata, we must not understand it to mean a particular prayer. It refers to a life geared towards God-realization[3]. Again, there was no fixed method of prayer either. Arsenius prayed on Saturday evening with his hands stretched out to the setting sun, and he stayed there until the sun shone on his face on Sunday.

Prayer, with the Desert Fathers, was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day. It was a life continually turned towards God. Abba Agathon said, “Prayer is hard work and a great struggle to one’s last breath.” When he was dying, Abba Pambo said, “From the time that I came into this solitude and built my cell and dwelt in it, I cannot remember eating any food that I had not earned with my own hands, nor speaking any word that I have been sorry for until now. And so I go to the Lord, as one who has not yet begun to serve God.” For Abba Arsenius, this was a rule for the whole of life, “Be solitary, be silent, and be at peace.”

The usual pattern however was to say the Psalms, one after another, during the week, and to intersperse this with weaving ropes, sometimes saying ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.’ This was aimed at establishing a true relationship with God. This was aimed at standing before God in every situation. Such a state was considered ‘spiritual life’ or ‘monastic life’ by the Fathers. An entry in the Apothegmata puts it very clearly: Unless a man can say, ‘I alone & God are here’, he will not find the prayer of quiet.’ It is the other side of St. Anthony’s word, ‘My life is with my brother.’

Hesychia:

Hesychia literally means ‘Quiet’. It is the calm in the entire person that is like a still pool of water. It is the exact equivalent of the Sanskrit term ‘Shanti’. It was because the ancient Hindus too valued this quiet so greatly that the lake Mansarovar in Tibet came to be revered in its tradition as the abode of Lord Shiva. This lake is situated at such a high altitude in the Himalayas that there is absolutely no wind to disturb the waters and the surface of the lake is perfectly placid. Such a still, quiet body of water is capable of reflecting the sun very clearly.

Hesychia was the aim of prayer according to the Desert Fathers. It was the central consideration in the prayer of the desert monks. On the external level, it signifies an individual living as a solitary. On a deeper level, it is not merely separation from noise and speaking with other people, but the possession of interior peace and quiet. More specifically, it means guarding the mind, constant remembrance of God, and the possession of inner prayer.

Apatheia:

It is the state of being unmoved by passion. Hindu spiritual aspirants will understand this as similar to the state called ‘Shama-sukha’. Apatheia is the immediate goal of the spiritual practices of the Desert Fathers.

Apatheia involves control over the passions rather than their destruction. Thus, it is a state of sublimation rather than emasculation. Complete annihilation of temptations occurs only when one has the beatific vision of God. Until that blessed moment, the Sadhana of the monk is however capable of attenuate the temptations to such an extent that for all practical purposes, they are absent. This state of attenuation is what is meant by Apatheia.

The Desert way of Life:

Before we proceed with our study of the Apothegmata Patrum, we would do well to get briefly acquainted with the way of life of the Desert Monks.

Seeking solitude in the desert, by completely cutting themselves off from society was the first step in the monastic life of the Desert Monks. Then, they placed themselves under old, experienced fathers. After that, the daily life was their prayer, and it was a radically simple life. A stone hut with a roof of branches, a reed mat for a bed, a sheep-skin [it was the cloak of a desert monk; it also doubled up as a blanket for sleeping & could be used to bundle up the belongings of the monk!], a lamp, a vessel for oil, and some potable water. This was all.

Food was reduced to a minimum. So was sleep. They said, ‘One hour’s night sleep is sufficient for a monk if he is a fighter.’ They had a horror of extra possessions. Look at this entry from the Apothegmata: A disciple saw a few peas lying on the road and said to his Father, “Shall I pick them up?” The old man said in amazement, “Why? Did you put them there?” He replied, “No.” “Then why would you pick them up?”

They tried many experiments, especially with fasting. But their final conclusion was, ‘For a man of prayer, one meal a day is sufficient.’ When a young man boasted of fasting longer, they asked him searching questions about the rest of his life.

The ideal was indeed very high, but it was interpreted in the most practical and common-sensical way. There is the story of John the Dwarf who announced to his brother that he was going off into the desert to live as an Angel would. After several days, he was tormented by acute hunger. So he returned and knocked on his brother’s door. His brother asked who was there. He replied, “It is me, John and I am suffering from hunger.” The brother replied, “John is now an Angel and has no need for food and shelter.” But at last he took in the humbled John and set him to work again.

It was a life of continual striving, but not of taut effort the whole time! It was said of Anthony that one day he was relaxing with the brothers outside his cell when a hunter came by and rebuked him. Anthony said, “Bend your bow and shoot an arrow.” He did. Anthony asked him to do so again, and again, and yet again. The hunter said, “Father, if I keep my bow always stretched, it will break.” “So it is with the monk”, replied Anthony, “if we push ourselves beyond measure, we will break; it is right for us from time to time to relax our efforts.”

We will now begin a study of the sayings of the Desert Fathers. This study will be useful to all genuine spiritual aspirants, more so for those who follow the monastic path to spiritual unfoldment.

How can the monastic life be made vibrant? This was the one thought that dominated the minds of the Desert Fathers. The sincerity with which they lived their monastic vocation is astounding. Most of their sayings pertain to the subtle nuances of monastic life. They conceived of a life rooted in prayer and humility. “A monk ought not to trust in his own righteousness, nor worry about the past, but should control his tongue and his stomach” says Abba Pambo. Abba Anthony said to Abba Poemen, “This is the great work of a monk – always to take blame for his own sins before God, and to expect temptations to his last breath.” It was said of Abba Theodore of Pherme that the three things he held to be fundamental were: Poverty, asceticism, flight from men.

  • The scheme of monastic life:

They dealt with spiritual life in a very systematic way. Just as a blacksmith decides clearly what shape he wants to hammer out of a lump of iron before it is heated, even so a monk should decide what virtue he wants to forge before he embarks on his spiritual practise. If he doesn’t do this, he labours in vain. If he is able to, a monk ought to tell his elders confidently how many steps he takes and how many drops of water he drinks in his cell, in case he is in error about it. Although this seems a bit of an exaggeration, it does give us the idea of how seriously they took the monastic vocation. Nothing was to be left to instinct. Every moment was a conscious moment in a monk’s life. They depended heavily on the experiments done by their predecessors in the Desert so that they wouldn’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. Thus, great importance was attached to the Scripture. We must remember that for these great monks, Scripture didn’t mean just the Bible, much less the New Testament alone. The Scripture was a generic term used to denote any and all recording of the spiritual effort of the people. Therefore Abba Epiphanius said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a deep abyss.” But, great premium was placed in those monks whose efforts had led to definite spiritual success and palpable spiritual attainments. Abba Poemen said, “The distinctive mark of the monk is made clear through temptations.”

It was an invaluable tradition of Guru-Shishya that was nurtured over the ages in the Desert that led to the unprecedented flourishing of the monastic achievements in the arid Deserts of Egypt. Abba Isaiah said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy Fathers, ‘As with purple dye, the first coloring is never lost.’ And ‘just as young shoots are easily trained back and bent, so it is with beginners who live in submission.

  • Glorification of Self-Effort:

Abba Isidore the Priest said, “If you desire salvation, do everything that leads you to it.”A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.” A brother questioned Abba Arsenius to hear a word from him and the old man said to him, “Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God and you will overcome exterior passions.” This idea of interior activity and overcoming exterior passions is a constant motif with the Fathers. One father said, “If the spirit does not sing with the body, labor is in vain. Whoever loves tribulation will obtain joy and peace later on.” One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, “What is a monk?” He said, “He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is.” Abba James said, “We do not need words only. At present there are many words among men, but we need works, for this is what is required. Not words, which do not bear fruit.” Abba Poemen said, “A monk who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drink to everyone but is not able to purify itself.” Although the unmistakable emphasis was on manly effort, they had no confusion regarding the aims in view. All work was but a means to spiritual unfoldment. Abba John the Cilician said, “Let us imitate our fathers. They lived in this place with much austerity and peace. Let us not make this place dirty, for our fathers cleansed it from the demons. This is a place for asceticism, not for worldly business.” Abba Moses was very forceful when he said, “The monk must die to everything before leaving the body. A monk whose deeds are not in harmony with his prayer labors in vain. We should no longer do those things against which we pray. For when a man gives up his own will, then God is reconciled with him and accepts his prayers.” Abba Theodore said, “In these days, many monks take their rest before God gives it to them.”

  • Vision of God – The central goal:

They were so focused in the crux of monastic life that they were able to achieve scientific precision in their monastic practices. Abba John said to his disciple, “Let us honor one only, and everyone will honor us. For if we despise one, that is God, everyone will despise us, and we will be lost.”Again, look at the words Abba Arsenius said towards the end of his life: “If we seek God, he will show himself to us. And if we keep him, he will remain close to us.” God is thus no more a belief with them. God was a perception, clear as any of the other sense-perceptions that we are accustomed with.

Abba Amoun of Nitria came to see Abba Anthony and said to him, “Since my rule is stricter than yours, how is it that your name is better known amongst monks than mine is?” Abba Anthony answered, “It is because I love God more than you.” Although this reply by Abba Anthony seems to be haughty, we must understand that he was making this statement as a matter of fact. He was just being logical about it. Monks in the Desert were accustomed to discern who among them had perceived God. Rules of external life did not fool any of them. And the wave of actual realization of God was an unprecedented phenomenon. Many monks there were who had genuine spiritual vision. One day Abba Daniel and Abba Ammoes went on a journey together. Abba Ammoes said, “When shall we too, settle down in a cell, Father?” Abba Daniel replied, “Who shall separate us henceforth from God? God is in the cell, and, on the other hand, he is outside too.”

  • The Inner Life:

The hall mark of a monk was the quality and intensity of his inner life. For instance look at this entry: The brothers praised a monk before Abba Anthony. When the monk came to see him, Anthony wanted to know how he would bear insults. Seeing that he could not bear them at all, he said to him, “You are like a village magnificently decorated on the outside, but destroyed from within by robbers!” Abba Agathon said, “Under no circumstance should the monk let his conscience accuse him of anything.” Personal integrity is the crowning glory of a monk. He remains true to the ideals he has vowed to realize in his life. He doesn’t need any external supervision to judge and monitor his life. His own inner voice is strong enough to supervise and guide him along his monastic path.

One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba, how is it that you with such good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” Abba Arsenius replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek. But I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.” The desert monks never confused academic learning and scholarship with real knowledge of oneself that arises from years of intense inner struggles.

Abba Isaac said that Abba Pambo used to say, “The monk’s garment should be such that he could throw it out of his cell for three days and no one would take it.” Since the real personality of a monk is his inner personality, the true monk will naturally pay all attention to his inner life and look upon his external personality merely from a utilitarian point of view. The body needs to be protected against the ravages of the climate, hence a wrapper is needed. And there ends the subject of the cloth to be worn. No further attention needs be given on the cloth. This is the drift of the thoughts of these wonderful Desert monks.

Food, sleep and work are important issues in a monk’s life. The Desert monks made extensive observations on these vital subjects. Abba Arsenius used to say that one hour’s sleep is enough for a monk if he is a good fighter. Someone asked Abba Biare, “What shall I do to be saved?” He replied, “Go, reduce your appetite and your manual work, dwell without care in your cell, and you will be saved.” Abba Gregory said, “The whole life of a monk is but one single day, if he is working hard with longing.” Abba Daniel said, “The body prospers in the measure in which the soul is weakened and the soul prospers in the measure in which the body is weakened.” Abba Doulas said, “If the enemy induces us to give up our inner peace, we must not listen to him, for nothing is equal to this peace and the privation of food. The one and the other join together to fight the enemy. For they make interior vision keen.”

Maintaining silence was highly appreciated in the lives of the Desert monks. It was said of Abba Arsenius and Abba Theodore of Pherme that more than any of the others, they hated the esteem of other men. Abba Arsenius would not readily meet people, while Abba Theodore was like steel when he met anyone. It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learnt to keep silence. Whenever his thoughts urged him to pass judgment on something which he saw, he would say to himself, “Agathon, it is not your business to do that.” Thus his spirit was always recollected. Abba Andrew said, “These three things are appropriate for a monk: Exile, poverty and endurance in silence.” A brother who shared lodging with other brothers asked Abba Bessarion, “What should I do?” the old man replied, “Keep silence and do not compare yourself with others.” He also said, “Detach yourself from the love of the multitude lest your enemy question your spirit and trouble your inner peace.” It was said of Abba Helladius that he spent twenty years in the Cells, without ever raising his eyes to see the roof of the church. He also said, “Restrain yourself from affection towards many people, for fear your spirit be distracted, so that your interior peace may not be disturbed.” Abba Theodore said, “The man who has learnt the sweetness of the cell flees from his neighbor, but not as though he despised him.” Abba Theophilus, the Archbishop of Alexandria came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.” Abba Pambo said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.” Abba John gave this advice: “Watching means to sit in the cell and be always mindful of God. That is what is meant by, ‘I was on the watch and God came to me.’ (Matt. 25, 36).” The same Abba John was very fervent. Now someone who came to see him, praised his work. But he remained silent, for he was weaving a rope. Once again the visitor began to speak and once again he kept silence. The third time he said to the visitor, “Since you came here, you have driven away God from me.” It was said of Abba John that when he returned from the harvest or when he had been with some old men, he gave himself to prayer, meditation and psalmody until his thoughts were established in their previous order. Abba John said, “If a monk has in his soul the tools of God, he will be able to stay in his cell, even if he has none of the tools of this world. If a monk has the tools of this world, but lacks those of God, he can still use those tools to stay in his cell. But if a monk has neither the tools of God nor of this world, it is absolutely impossible for him to stay in his cell.” Abba Isidore said, “When I was younger and remained in my cell, I set no limit to prayer. The night was for me as much the time for prayer as the day.” A brother questioned Abba Hierax, “Give me a word.” The old man said to him, “Sit in your cell. If you are hungry, eat. If you are thirsty, drink. Only, do not speak evil of anyone, and you will be saved.” Abba Aio said to Abba Macarius, “Give me a word.” The old man said, “Flee from men, stay in your cell, weep for your sins, do not take pleasure in the conversation of men, and you will be saved.” A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” A brother said to Abba Matoes, “Give me a word.” He said, “Restrain the spirit of controversy in yourself in everything, and weep, have compunction, for the time is drawing near.” He also said, “Just as the king’s body-guard stands always on guard at his side, so the monk’s soul should always be on guard against the demon of fornication.

Abba Bessarion, at the point of death, said, “The monk ought to be as the Cherubim and the Seraphim; all eye!” What does this mean? A monk must be eternally vigilant. He must be always awake to the workings of his own mind. He must observe himself at every step, every moment of his life. Abba Evagrius said, “Always keep your death in mind and do not forget the eternal judgment. Then there will be no fault in your soul.” Going to Egypt one day, Abba Poemen saw a woman who was sitting on a tomb and weeping bitterly. He said, “If all the delights of the world were to come, they could not drive sorrow away from the soul of this woman. Even so the monk would always have compunction in himself.”

It would be wrong to conclude however that these Desert monks were long-faced, killjoys. True monastic profession is always attended by intense joy. It is a joy that is un-caused, and hence spontaneous. And it finds expression in the daily life of a monk established in his monastic practices. As he was dying, Abba Benjamin said to his sons, “If you observe the following, you can be saved: Be joyful at all times, pray without ceasing, and give thanks for all things.

  • Humility – the crowning glory:

They placed the highest premium on humility. They held that humility was the crowning glory of a monk. Humility alone it was that was a monk’s greatest safeguard against any sort of fall. Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility’.” The same Abba said, “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.” Anger is the soul’s violent reaction to the annihilation of its existence before it is ready to abdicate the throne it has usurped. Abba Ammonas said, “I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” Abba Euprepius said, “May fear, humility, lack of food and compunction be with you.” And how was one to conquer anger, and thereby his arrogant individuality? The Desert monks found that Jesus had shown the way. Abba Zeno said, “If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.

Another expedient in taming the arrogant self was forbearance of insults from others. Abba Isaiah said, “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults. The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day.” We have already quoted Abba Isaiah’s words above; he said to those who were making a good beginning by putting themselves under the direction of the holy Fathers, ‘As with purple dye, the first coloring is never lost.’ And ‘just as young shoots are easily trained back and bent, so it is with beginners who live in submission.’ The same Abba Isaiah, when someone asked him what avarice was, replied, “Not to believe that God cares for you, to despair of the promises of God and to love boasting.” He was also asked what anger is and he replied, “Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.” Abba Theodore said, “There is no other virtue than that of not being scornful.” A brother said to Abba Theodore, “Speak a word to me, for I am perishing.” Sorrowfully, he said to him, “I am myself in danger, so what can I say to you?” This may sound like a bit trite, serving no purpose. But we must understand that the wise Fathers addressed the mind that asked the question rather than just answer the question as it was worded. The question came out of a subtle sense of self-worth! That illusive sense of self-worth was detrimental to the monk. So, Abba Theodore answered that he, even he, the acclaimed Abba Theodore, was in danger! She also said, “Neither asceticism nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do that. There was an anchorite who was able to banish the demons. He asked them, “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?’ They replied, ‘We do not eat or drink.’ ‘Is it vigils?’ they replied, ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘Is it separation from the world?’ ‘We live in the deserts.’ ‘What power sends you away then?’ They said, ‘Nothing can overcome us, but only humility.’ Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons?” Abba John also said, “We have put the light burden on one side, that is to say, self-accusation, and we have loaded ourselves with a heavy one, that is to say, self-justification.” He also said, “Humility and the fear of God are above all virtues.” Abba John was sitting in church one day and he gave a sigh, unaware that there was someone behind him. When he noticed it, he lay prostrate before him, saying, “Forgive me, Abba, for I have not yet made a beginning.” A monk has to be considerate to those around him. Abba John felt compunction that he did not maintain silence in the Church, as a result of which his brother’s contemplation might have been disturbed! That is the reason why he prostrated before him and asked his forgiveness. A brother asked Abba Isidore the Priest, “Why are the demons so frightened of you?” The old man said, “Because I have done my practices since the day I became a monk, and not allowed anger to reach my lips.” Note the subtlety of the expression here. Abba Isidore says, ‘I have not allowed anger to reach my lips.’ He doesn’t say he did not allow anger to rise in him at all. Why was that? External manifestation has to be avoided at all costs. Temptations do arise in the mind for a long, long time, until the full blast of divine light burns bright in the inner consciousness. It is only the beatific vision that can annihilate the demons once and for all. For a long time until that beatific vision occurs, the monk has to be extremely careful, eternally vigilant to avoid external manifestations of the inner struggles.

Abba John of the Thebaid said, “First of all the monk must gain humility, for it is the first commandment of the Lord who said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’” Abba Nilus said, “Happy is the monk who thinks he is the outcast of all. The monk who loves interior peace will remain invulnerable to the shafts of the enemy, but he who mixes with crowds constantly receives blows. The servant who neglects his master’s work should expect a beating.” Abba Xanthias said, “A dog is better than I am, for he has love and he does not judge.

  • Abstinence & Obedience:

Next to humility, they valued abstinence and obedience to their Abba. Abba Joseph said to Abba Lot, “You cannot become a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.” The monks of the Ramakrishna Order were directed by Swami Vivekananda thus: ‘Brahmacharya must be like a burning fire tingling in your veins!’ Abba Anthony said, “Obedience with abstinence gives a monk power over wild beasts.” Compare this with the words of Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi who once said, “It is sufficient if you stay in this Order. You will gain everything. Of course, stay in this Order and practice strict Brahmacharya, and you will gain everything.” Abba Anthony also said, “He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech and sight. There is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication.” He also said, “Unless he keeps the commandments of God, a man cannot make progress, not even in a single virtue.” A brother asked Abba Agathon about fornication. He answered, “Go, cast your weakness before God and you shall find rest.” Abba Anoub said, “Since the day when the name of Christ was invoked upon me, no lie has come out of my mouth.” The same Abba said, “For fourteen years I have never lain down, but have slept sitting or standing.” Imagine the sense of purpose these ancient monks for self-development! We must further remember that they were solitary dwellers; that means they had no one to keep a watch over what they did! Abba Gerontius of Petra said that many, tempted by the pleasures of the body, commit fornication, not in their body, but in their spirit, and while preserving their bodily virginity, commit prostitution in their soul. Abba Epiphanius said, “Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.

While these monks were very serious of conquering concupiscence, they were quite aware of the various perversions that a struggling soul has to face! Take for instance the stiff fight against homosexuality. Abba Eudemon said this about Abba Paphnutius, the Father of Scetis, “I went down there while I was still young. He would not let me stay, saying to me, ‘I do not allow the face of a woman to dwell in Scetis, because of the conflict with the enemy.’” Abba Isaac said, “Do not bring young boys here. Four churches in Scetis are deserted because of boys.” Abba Carion said, “A monk who lives with a boy, falls, if he is not stable. But even if he is stable and does not fall, he still does not make progress.” Abba John the Dwarf said, “He who gorges himself and talks to a boy has already in his thoughts committed fornication with him.” These might seem like too inflexible a rule for monastic life, but considering the innumerable falls that are being reported now-a-days, we cannot but appreciate the wisdom behind these strictures of the ancient Desert monks.

It was an established fact among the monks that one who wished to rein in his senses had to stay in one place for a protracted period of time. Inability to settle in one place was recognized for its true cause – mind’s violent reaction to the attempts of controlling it! Abba Eudemon said, “A beginner who goes from one monastery to another is like an animal that jumps this way and that, for fear of the halter.” Amma Theodora said, “There was a monk, who, because of the great number of his temptations said, ‘I will go away from here.’ As he was putting on his sandals, he saw another man who was also putting on his sandals and this other monk said to him, ‘Is it on my account that you are going away? Because I go before you wherever you are going.’” Abba Eudemon also said, “When God wishes to take pity on a soul and it rebels, not bearing anything and doing its own will, he then allows it to suffer that which it does not want, in order that it may seek him again.” The wise monks realized that there was an urgent need to sublimate the urge to flee constantly from a place in search of a new place. Abba John the Cilician said to the brethren, “My sons, in the same way that we have fled from the world, let us equally flee from the desires of the flesh.” Wanderlust had to be internalized and a region had to be reached in the inner realms of one’s own consciousness where there was no more trouble from the inner demons.

Abba Theodore said, “If I do not cut myself off from these feelings of compassion, they will not let me be a monk.” Compare this with the training that Swami Vivekananda gave to his monastic disciples, as recorded by Sister Nivedita – the monastic training [or Brahmacharya] entails complete emotional solitude. Abba Theodore said, “Do not sleep in a place where there is a woman.” Notice that the advice is not to meet her, nor is it not to see her. A monk is asked not to sleep in a place where a woman resides! If we think deeply over this strange advice, we will appreciate the wisdom that uttered this invaluable advice. The mind of a struggling monk is extremely sharp, extremely volatile, extremely impressionable. The mind would have clearly noted the presence of a woman in the vicinity. While awake, the mind may seem subdued. But when the mind sleeps, the monk will certainly have a fall. It is against such an eventuality that the saying already quoted above has to be understood: One of the fathers asked Abba John the Dwarf, “What is a monk?” He said, “He is toil. The monk toils at all he does. That is what a monk is.

Abba Theodore of Eleutheropolis said, “Privation of food mortifies the body of the monk.” Another old man said, “Vigils mortify it still more.” Although physical privations have their sure advantages in the general scheme of monastic life, the wonderful Desert monks never lost sight of the central theme of prayer and love of God that gave their life real meaning! Abba Theonas said, “When we turn our spirit from the contemplation of God, we become the slaves of carnal passions.” Abba John also said, “Who is as strong as the lion? And yet, because of his greed he falls into the net, and all his strength is brought low.” Abba John also said, “The Fathers of Scetis ate bread and salt and said, ‘We do not regard bread and salt as indispensable.’ So they were strong for the work of God.” Abba Isidore said that for forty years he had been tempted to sin in thought but that he had never consented either to covetousness or to anger.

Abba Isidore the Priest said, “It is impossible for you to live according to God if you love pleasures and money. If you truly desire the kingdom of heaven, despise riches and respond to divine favors.” What was the justification for leading a disciplined life? It was quite simple. Common sense provided the answer! Abba Mius of Belos said, “Obedience responds to obedience. When someone obeys God, God obeys his request.” Abba Nilus said, “Do not always want everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases. Then you will be undisturbed and thank full in your prayer.

  • Brotherly Love:

The virtue next in order of value to monastic life was brotherly love. Abba Anthony said, “Our life and our death are with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God. But if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” He also said, “I have never gone to sleep with a grievance against anyone, and, as far as I could, I have never let anyone go to sleep with a grievance against me.” A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went with him saying, “I too am a sinner.” Abba Isaac said, “I have never allowed a thought against my brother who has grieved me to enter my cell. I have seen to it that no brother should return to his cell with a thought against me.” Abba Poemen said about Abba Isidore that wherever he addressed the brothers in church he said only one thing, “Forgive your brother so that you may also be forgiven.”

  • Common Sense:

But the overarching feature of the Desert Monks was their common sense! Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius “Is it good to have nothing extra in the cell? I know a brother who had some vegetables and he has pulled them up.” Abba Arsenius replied, “Undoubtedly that is good. But it must be done according to a man’s capacity. For, if he does not have the strength for such a practice, he will soon plant new ones.” Abba Arsenius used to say that a monk travelling abroad should not get involved in anything. Thus he will remain in peace. This is a wonderful advice that can be appreciated only if one has sufficient experience in life. Abba Epiphanius said, “The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.” He also said that one of the Fathers used to say, ‘Eat a little without irregularity; if charity is joined to this, it leads the monk rapidly to the threshold of Apatheia.’ A brother came to Abba Theodore and began to converse with him about things which he had never yet put into practice. So the old man said to him, “You have not yet found a ship nor put your cargo aboard it and before you have sailed, you have already arrived at the city. Do the work first; then you will have the speed you are making now.” Abba Theodore also said, “If you are temperate, do not judge the fornicator, for you would then transgress the law just as much. And he who said, ‘Do not commit fornication’ also said, “Do not judge.’” Abba Isidore the Priest said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride, but if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and to glorify himself.” Abba Isidore the Priest said, “Disciples must love as their fathers those who are truly their masters and fear them as their leaders. They should not lose their fear because of love, nor because of fear should love be obscured.” Abba Cassian said, “There was a monk living in a cave in the desert. His relations according to the flesh let him know, ‘Your father is very ill, at the point of death. Come and receive his inheritance.’ He replied to them, ‘I died to the world before he did and the dead do not inherit from the living.’” Abba Matoes said, “I prefer a light and steady activity, to one that is painful at the beginning but is soon broken off.

The greatest outcome of nurturing common sense as a trait in the Desert monks was the broadening of the vision. Fanaticism can be overcome mainly by common sense. It is quite well known that even genuine spiritual realization does not remove fanaticism. That is the reason why we find even great saints with genuine spiritual unfoldment still entertaining stifling ideas of fanaticism. Since the Desert monks nurtured ‘discernment’ as a requisite virtue, we find the cool breeze of expansiveness in these ancient monks. Take for instance this saying of Abba John. He said, “The saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruits, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same spirit that works in all of them.

Although they were all monks in the Desert, keyed to the highest ideals of monastic life, they however knew very well that excellence could be achieved as a secular too. This revelation too was a direct outcome of cultivation of ‘discernment’ or common sense among the monks. It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his Desert that there was one who was his equal in the City. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the Angels. However, the ideals of one were not to be confused with the ideals of the other. It was said of Abba Arsenius that, just as none in the palace had worn more splendid garments than he when he lived there, so no one in the Church wore such poor clothing as he did. Two father asked God to reveal to them how far they had advanced. A voice came which said, “In a certain village in Egypt, there is a man called Eucharistus and his wife who is called Mary. You have not yet reached their degree of virtue.” The two old men set out and went to the village. Having enquired, they found his house and his wife. They said to her, “Where is your husband?” She replied, “He is a shepherd and is feeding the sheep.” Then she made them come into the house. When evening came, Eucharistus returned with the sheep. Seeing the old men, he set the table and brought water to wash their feet. The old men said to him, “We shall eat nothing until you have told us about your way of life.” Eucharistus replied with humility, “I am a shepherd, and this is my wife.” The old men insisted but he did not want to say more. Then they said, “God has sent us to you.” At these words, Eucharistus was afraid and said, “Here are these sheep. We received them from our parents and if, by God’s help we make a little profit, we divide it into three parts: one for the poor, the second for hospitality and the third for our personal needs. Since I married my wife, we have not had intercourse with one another, for she is a virgin; we each live alone. At night we wear hair-shirts and our ordinary clothes by day. No one has known of this till now.” At these words, they were filled with admiration and went away giving glory to God.

  • Conclusion:

It is the belief of the Eastern Orthodox monks even today that these ancient Fathers are not just historical persons, but living powers. Their sayings have sufficient power to shape our lives if only we open ourselves to their benign influence. May the spirit that guided these Desert Fathers shape our lives too.

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[1] Coptic Christianity is the oldest Christian community in the Middle East. They are even today a distinct ethno-religious community. They pride themselves on the apostolicity of the Egyptian Church whose founder was the first in an unbroken chain of Patriarchs. The main body of the Coptic Church [or the Egyptian Christianity] has been out of communion with both the Roman Catholic Church in Rome and the various Eastern Orthodox Church.

[2] One of the chief exponents of the tradition of Desert Monasticism was John Cassian [c. 360 – 435]. He was a native of Scythia. As a young man he joined a monastery in Bethlehem, but soon left it and went to study monasticism in Egypt. Here he was greatly influenced by Evagrius Ponticus. Later on Cassian became Deacon of the church in Constantinople. From there he was sent by St. John Chrysostom on a mission to Pope Innocent I at Rome. He seems to have remained in the West thereafter and by 415 AD he had established two monasteries near Marseilles. He authored two books, the Institutes and the Conferences, in which he presented what he learned from the great old men of the desert in a series of sermons. Though they crystallised much that he heard in the desert, he presents it in his own style, and with a consistency which is his rather than theirs. His writings are the work of a sophisticated writer, reflecting on his experiences and interpreting them in the light of other influences. These two books became classics in the West. Quotations from them abound in Rule of St. Benedict. Conferences was compulsory reading before Compline each night in Benedictine monasteries. The Rule of St. Benedict recommends his works as ‘tools of virtue for good-living and obedient monks’, thus ensuring that the tradition passed on by Cassian would become one of the most potent and formative influences in western monasticism.

[3] In Christian spiritual literature, this emphasis on actual realization of God can be seen mainly in the Orthodox tradition. The mainstream traditions of Roman Catholicism & Protestantism do not emphasize this actual realization. With these mainstream traditions, a spiritual life means arranging to live according to the advices mentioned in the Bible, while the actual spiritual achievements were to be had post-mortem. The Orthodox Church claims its direct descent from the traditions of the Desert Fathers.