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?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Do you believe in my God?”
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!
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’.
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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!” 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!’ 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.
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.
 This story is taken from ‘Caravan of Dreams’ by Idries Shah: Page 167
 Cf: New Testament: Matt 5:8
 This story is taken from https://www.scribd.com/document/82805747/Food-for-Thought
 This story is from “Prayer of the Frog – Part 1” by Antony De Mello
 This story is taken from https://www.scribd.com/document/82805747/Food-for-Thought
 I have taken this story from ‘How shall I be?’, value-education textbook for Class-VIII by Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math
 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.