Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Religion and the Quest for Self

Dr. K. Sreenivasan

Professor of English, University College, Trivandrum

That religion stands out as one of the great civilising forces in human history is a truism which warrants no restatement. In the evolution of the species into a superior animal, the inte­grating force of religion was indeed crucial. Religion played a constructive role up to a certain point in the story of civili­sation. Henceforward it began unleashing divisive and destructive elements. The crusades and other religious conflicts of the Middle Ages involved colossal waste of life and property. In modern times also religion divides people, makes them fight each other, and adds substantially to the sum total of human misery. The tragedy of our motherland, viz, its vivisection, was owing to communal frenzy and fanaticism. Even post-partition trends show that there is hardly any means to disgorge the poison which has infected the arteries of our national consciousness.

Thus, for those who think, it is an inescapable fact that religion had a positive role in the past, but its present relevance seems to be negative, because it only adds to, instead of resolving, the conflict and strife which are endemic to a techno­logically advanced society. There is, perhaps, another dimension to religion in modern society, which we earthlings cannot comprehend, because each one of us is committed, rather parties involved, in the phenomenon of world religions. But suppose the so-called man from Mars happens to visit our earth. He is likely to observe one strange manifestation. In most countries, he would see imposing structures of different patterns, which house neither factories nor offices nor places of entertainment. And they have no direct bearing upon the conduct of mundane existence. Inside there goes on at intervals a kind of non-utili­tarian activity. Some of these buildings are properly maintained, others are in ruins. In some countries such halls are little frequented. Instead, there are open-air parades, ceremonial singing, shouting of slogans and revolutionary catchwords. Such activities, by and large, have little connection with the endeavours of homo sapiens as producers and consumers of wealth. The man from Mars will be mystified by these goings on. If he is told that these activities represent the religious and pseudo-ideological exercises of the humans, he will be perhaps amused and puzzled. He might wonder why such waste of precious time and energy is permitted. Unfortunately we are not from Mars and hence cannot afford the luxury of such musings. Still, the fact remains that religion, from being a benevolent force in the beginning, slowly manifested its destruct­ive potentiality, and in the modern context, tends to become a non-utilitarian ritual, which destroys social cohesion, and builds up among us explosive internal pressures. Nevertheless, religion is still, if rightly understood, a dynamic force, for good or for evil, and therefore understanding it rightly is of paramount importance to modern man.

We all know what religion is and, hence, to ask what it is redundant. Nonetheless our apprehension of it is vague and inexact. Hence to define and describe it is worthwhile as well as rewarding. Religion is a European word (See Comparative Religion by A. C. Bouquet, p. 15 It is a charac­teristically Western concept. In Latin it is religioand Cicero held that it came from a root “leg”, meaning “to take up, gather, count or observe,” that is “to observe the signs of a divine communication.” Servius held that it came from another root, “lig”, meaning “to bind”, so that religiomeant a relationship, that is, a communion between the human and the Superhuman. Subsequently the word came to have both the meanings. St. Augustine uses it in both senses. The earlier meaning is more appropriate, because it is the exact counterpart of a Greek word (parateresis) which means the scrupulous obser­vation of omens and the performance of ritual. Most significantly the historical Jesus is reported as saying, “The Kingdom of God cometh not with parateresis”, which may mean “not by looking for omens will you discern it approach” or “not by ritual observance will you bring it nearer.”

All the great religions of the world originated in the East, but institutionalised religion, as we know it today, is a contri­bution of the West. Religion in the West is concerned with a “Religio”, that is “a relationship between the human self and a non-human entity”, the “sacred, the supernatural, the self-­existent, the Absolute or simply God.” In fact the concept of God, as we see it in Christianity or Islam, is quintessentially a Western concoction. The idea of a personalised God, a patriarch-­like figure, is a lineal descendant of the Greek God, Zeus. In Hinduism, to begin with, there was a pagan nature worship at the time of the Rigveda, which celebrated natural phenomena like the sun, wind and the rain. With the Upanishads there emerged the idea of an immanent, dynamic, all-embracing manifestation, which is the Brahman or the Unitive Creative Force. Nevertheless, the emphasis in Hindu religion continued to be on the good life. How to organise it became the paramount concern of the Law-givers. For example, Manu propounded the Varnashrama Dharma, a systematically worked­-out dispensation meant to perpetuate Brahminical domination. Here the real intention is to devise a social pattern, but purposely it is made out as a divinely ordained system. Bhagavad Gita helped to buttress such a social order and also advocated a Karmamarga, or Path of Action, revealed, inviolable and permanent. This ingeniously imposed tyranny of the Priestly Order, based on Sruti (Revelation) and Smriti (Inherited tradition) was challenged by Lord Buddha. He advocated the Eight-fold Path, a way of life quite different from the one propped up by the priestly class.

Confucianism and Taoism of China are also means to the good life. Thus, it is quite evident that from Suez eastward, religion has been, by and large, a way of life. The Pharisees, it was said, had the hodosor Way. Early Christianity in the Book of Acts, is “that way,” Japanese religion iscalled shinto, meaning the “way of the Gods.” In Islam also, secular aspects like economic justice, brotherhood and charity take precedence over relationship with God. But in Christianity, though born east of Suez, owing to the permeation of European traditions, viz., Greek thought and the centripetal and heirar­chical structure of the Roman Empire with the Caesar at the top, there surfaced a marked tendency tomake religion primarily a relationship between the individual and his Maker. There was also consequently an ingenious demarcation between Temporal and Spiritual authority. Thus, on closer analysis, we see that Western religion has managed to avoid conflict between a man’s private and public self. But this had a deleterious effect too: religion got divorced from secular existence; both were put in water-tight compartments. In the West, the dichotomy became so complete that we find today the strange spectacle of Christianity and Communism in one and the same individual.

This kind of mutually repugnant combination manifested in Europe because religion got divorced from reason; its one and only basis was faith. Many of the fundamental tenets of Christ­ianity, including that about God, were above questioning. Original Sin, transubstantiation, Papal Infallibility, etc., are matters of implicit belief to the faithful. So much so, the mind, with its freedom to choose, was least operative in religious matters. Doctrines and dogmas were handed down; the faithful have to accept them in toto. In other words, religion became, as origin­ally meant by the word, the performance of rituals. This made it possible for a man to “have a religion” without “being religious.” As long as one practised the rituals and observances prescribed by religion, he has a religion, even though he does not subscribe to the true religious spirit nor imbibe the values which go with them. Western religion was handicapped by this split-personality. As materialism made gross inroads, we witnessed there the strange spectacle of having God, liturgy and the Church, but with declining spiritual overtones. Indeed, in certain parts of Europe, they have secularised the religious paraphernalia, to evolve a substitute religion of Communism, with a pantheon, priesthood and appropriate rituals. Herein is the genesis of the deep crisis, which the West now suffers from. There is a clear breakdown of spiritual values. In the engulfing darkness, they grope for a way out. And many among them look to the East, especially to India, for light and illumination.

Thus, in the West, religion and ideolagy have converged towards the same point in a no man’s land of spiritual paralysis. The function of true religion is to integrate, to bring minds together and thereby evolve harmony out of the discordant notes struck by individual egos. What occasions this meeting of minds? Only through a process of outgoing, that is, by breaking loose from one’s individual shells so that understanding and spiritual comraderie between man and man are possible. In fact the self, by discovering itself, must become aware of its oneness with the Universal Self, and discern the non-dual or Advaitic oneness which keeps in motion this vast cosmos with its multi­tudinous manifestations of life. That is, where the Quest forSelf looms large and bright as the basic need of modern times. A true religious revival can occur only through such a quest, which focuses the Unity of all Life and causes the realisation that everything is animated by Brahman, which we may even call a Directive Mind.

Christ had warned that the Kingdom of God cannot be won through ritual. According to him, it is “already realised in your midst” or it is “realised inwardly, and not by outward ceremo­nies.” Is he not categorical here about the role of the Self, the prescient Mind, which is the dynamo of all human actions? If so, it relates him to Indian philosophical thought. Of course, his Church, owing to history and tradition, underwent distortions, in its institutionalised form. Nevertheless, he was a humanist who had believed that Heaven and Hell are within us and are ordained by what we make of ourselves. It is the Self which makes or mars us. Christ was one who was fascinated by the ascetic ideal of life. It is a path in which contemplation and introspection are of great significance. The charting of the psyche is quite relevant. Christ was a true Jnanayogi – one who subdued Self through wisdom. He was like one of the great Rishis of ancient India.

It is edifying to muse about these inimitable seekers of Truth. They were our Path-finders, the architects of our spiritual and secular way of life. Many among them happened to live in India and they did expound philosophical systems which are astonishingly fresh even today, Out of these was unfolded a way of life which sustained our nation for the past several millennia. To the Indian, no matter to whichever faith he belongs, life is a pilgrimage, a progressive gravitation towards the Perfect, which is the ultimate stage of Moksha or Nirvana. To attain this stage, there are three means – Bhaktior devotion, Karma or action and Jnanaor wisdom. The Purusharthas–Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha – are the desiderata of existence. The Ashrama Dharma is the means to this material and spiritual transmutation.

This is an integrated view of life. The metaphysical concept which informs it is Advaita or the Principle of Oneness. Its greatest and most systematic exponent was Sri Sankara. The simple basis of this philosophy is non-dualism. The Self or Atman is a microscopic part of an Omnipotent Self, which is a World Soul or an Over Soul. It is Paramatma, God or Brahman. And each man in whichever way he opts, through Bhakti or Karma or Jnana, engages himself in a Quest forSelf, probes the depths of his soul, and slowly by the conscientious performance of his chosen duties – Brahmacharya, Garhastya, Vanaprastha, Sanyasa – the four Ashramas – cherishes and cultivates his own soul and strives to enlarge it assiduously so that ultimately it is close to the Universal Soul. Thus, he tends to achieve Moksha or the final release from Samsara or the coil of this earthly existence. In this eternal Quest for Self by men, temples, rituals, and even God are not absolutely conditional. Sans even these, says Hindu philosophy, one can hope to achieve the transcendental bliss of Moksha. An atheist too is not denied this opportunity. The Charvakas, or non-believers of God, were also the Rishis of the Hindu pantheon. The following stanza from Sri Sankara shows how unorthodoxy were his views about God and religion;

O Lord, pardon my three sins:
I have in contemplation clothed in form
Thee who art formless:
I have in praise described
Thee who art ineffable I
And In visiting temples I have ignored
Thine omnipotence.

The sheet anchor of this philosophy is the quest for self. Sri Sankara systematised it as Advaita or Monism. Life’s ultimate goal is to realise its non-dualness. Adi Sankara’s philosophical speculations stopped short of its social implications and survived as an idealistic concept. Another Keralite, Sree Narayana Guru galvanised it, into a dynamic Thought. His distinction is its application to social change. While Sri Sankara perfected the speculative element in the metaphysical concept of Advaita, Sree Narayana sought to wield it as the engine of social transformation. With its help, he meant to forge a social order based on non-Self, that is, on genuine altruism and self-abnegation, the right royal road to Love, which unites all. In this stress-inflicted, conflict-ridden world, he sought to re-esta­blish harmony through Love, by a quiescent acceptance of the Oneness of Phenomena – One God, One Religion, One Caste. To him, as to the great founders of world religions, Love is all, God is Truth, and man is the measure of everything. His is the humanistic ideal par excellence, which blends the essence of all religions and faiths. It also encompasses the ideals of equality, justice and freedom, which the secular philosophers have espoused. The panacea to cure all the ills of humanity today is to trans­cend Self. How can we achieve it unless we know Self? And a quest for Self is the starting point of selflessness, love, freedom, the final release of the soul from its bondage, and the attain­ment of Moksha or Nirvana, which is existence sans desire and sorrow.

Sree Narayana Guru’s philosophical poem, One Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction, is a quintessential abstract of Upanishadic philosophy. In a lucid and simple way, he unravels the essence of the Indian world view. Two stanzas of this seminal work are worth-quoting. The first is a warning and a proscription against too much indulgence in Self­–

What’s good to one, and to another brings distress, 
Beware inimical are to Self such deeds;
They who to others give intense pain,
Into Inferno’s ocean sink, there to burn.

The other strikes a positive note and thus balances by contrast the negation of the former. It is a persuasive assertion of the Oneness of Life. Further it is a clarion call to right action and conduct.

What we here know as this man or that.
On reflection is Self’s prime cosmic form;
And that which each does for self-happiness
Should also subserve others’ happiness.

This is the true spirit animating all religions, the role of the Good Samaritan, which alone is the road to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. And only through the quest for self can one imbibe this all-embracing power of love.

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