Religion: A Universal Need
This book has been written to demonstrate that religion is a pragmatic necessity for everyone: that God is deeply relevant to every life, and is by no means the side issue so many people try to make Him.
If we accept that He exists, it surely goes without saying that He cannot be some minor or merely local deity. In the vast universe revealed to us by modern astronomy, God can only be thought of as infinite. To describe infinity adequately, however, would be impossible. Language derives from shared experience; it is not adequate for describing cosmic verities. The clearest mind could not conceptualize a state of consciousness that is both infinitely large and infinitesimally small — and that confounds reason itself, moreover, by being neither large nor small! The Bible describes the futility of any such attempt. “My thoughts,” it says in Isaiah 55:8, “are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” Mere thought could not span the abyss between finitude and infinity.
Nevertheless, there is something in human nature that feels imprisoned by finitude. Deep inside us we long to embrace infinity. We will never be satisfied until we have unraveled the mystery of existence. For man, despite Darwin’s disparaging verdict, is more than animal. Everyone pondering life’s strange twists and turns must surely ask himself sometimes whether there isn’t some higher reality: wise, kindly (so he hopes!), and forever aware of his individual existence.
Most people think of God only vaguely, if at all. They may imagine Him as in some obscure way omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. They may think of Him more personally, though still vaguely, as “all-merciful,” or “all-wise.” They may endow Him mentally with a form of some sort. In any case, they usually separate Him from daily reality as they know it.
This book offers an alternative to all such abstractions. What purpose is served, indeed, by holding God at a distance? Theological definitions may persuade us to bow before Him in reverence, but they cannot inspire us to love Him. Religiously inclined people may consider it excessively familiar to address Him as their very own, yet, if He created us, how can He be anything else? Why do we today, influenced by an ancient tradition, address Him still in the familiar form as “Thou”? Perhaps, somewhere in the past, God’s closeness was more generally accepted. In any case — at least in today’s English — “Thou” is no longer used. Even in conversation with our own nearest and dearest, this form of address seems to us unsuitable, because strangely formal. Indeed, one wonders whether even in olden times the familiar way of addressing God was not rather an affirmation suggested by saintly preceptors, instead of a reflection of the way most people actually thought of Him. For people also thought of Him, then, as the almighty Lord — not a concept, surely, to inspire intimacy!
It is easier, in a sense, to visualize God in the starry heavens than in our own homes. The stars, so remote from humdrum earthly existence, suggest to our minds perfect stillness, harmony, and wisdom. By contrast, our homes are often scenes of strife and rivalry. Yet if God’s omnipresence includes the stars, He must also be right around us — even (as Jesus Christ put it) inside us. Moreover, were we able to view the stars up close we would see them to be blazing furnaces, where violent explosions erupt constantly — hardly scenes of stillness and harmony!
In any case, we cannot be forever contemplating the heavens. To the extent that we hold God aloof from our daily realities, we alienate Him from us. We need a concept of God that will bring Him into our kitchens, our bedrooms, our living rooms — yes, even when those living rooms are crowded with guests. If God is everywhere, He must be quite as near to us as He is far away. We need to make Him our immediate reality. We need to seek His guidance and inspiration in our most intimate thoughts and feelings; relate to Him when the world is most demanding of our attention; seek His influence even in light undertakings; listen for His laughter behind our silliest jokes, and ask Him to infuse with His love our tenderest sentiments! If we don’t see our need for Him simply in order to exist, we reduce Him to a mental abstraction: useful in mathematics, perhaps, but lacking in closer significance for us.
Ultimately, God alone can satisfy our most personal needs. In our dealings with other people, He is our conscience. In our labor, He is our satisfaction. When we read a good book or listen to uplifting music, He is our inspiration. In everything we do, from the performance of serious duty to the most trivial pursuits, He is there, watching, joining in if we invite Him to, and giving us our strength. To ignore Him means to go stumbling blindly through life, unaware of innumerable pitfalls on the path before us.
People distance themselves from God when they think of Him abstractly. Perhaps they imagine their belief will “save” them, but without love, what could salvation itself be? Theological definitions give no comfort to the heart. They are like antique chairs placed about to be seen, but not sat upon! Again, they are like precious chinaware, stored away safely in cupboards, but seldom used. People remember God during their times of suffering — but otherwise? In grief they may take Him out of that cupboard, dust Him off, and examine Him more carefully. Usually, however, they consider themselves well enough off without Him, as they go trudging wearily from one crisis to another, their brows furrowed in anxiety.
We need a concept of God that will motivate us to love Him. He is, even if we know it not, our very own. Do we, however, perceive ourselves as His own? We ought to, for so we are.
What I plan to do in this book is introduce a concept of God that will inspire you to want to know Him. Once you have this knowledge, it will be your fault alone if you think Him far away. How you relate to Him is crucial to your happiness. To define Him with hairsplitting exactness may puff one up in pride, but it will offer no nourishment for the soul. Even to long for God, though one receive no response from Him, is incomparably more fulfilling to the heart than any pursed-lips acknowledgement that, “Possibly — indeed, I may assert with a modicum of confidence that something must actually exist ‘up there,’ in regions subtler than any with which humanity is at present familiar.”
The theologian presents his “proofs” and syllogisms — to what practical purpose? Even he, however, must smile indulgently when he sees his little daughter playing with dolls. Will he accuse her of lavishing affection uselessly on inanimate objects? Let us hope not! Wise and learned he may be, but as a human father he must recognize that her affection, though offered only in play, helps to prepare her for motherhood later on.
In her childish games she may also learn something else: the importance of loving without any thought of return. The ability to love selflessly is a sign of maturity. Whether the love is given wisely is another matter — a lesson reserved, perhaps, for higher schooling in life.
In religion, similarly, the most important thing is to love selflessly.
A materialist in India once remarked to me scornfully: “Someday you and others who dedicate yourselves to the search for God will be very disillusioned, when you wake up to the discovery that He doesn’t exist.”
“You may be right,” I replied smiling, “but at least we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we’ve done some good!”
Ultimately, the main beneficiary of every good deed, and the main victim of every harmful one, is one’s own self. Obviously, the question of God’s existence is important. More important to us first, however, is that we develop in understanding. Whether He exists is meaningful primarily to the degree that we are conscious of His presence. Our first need is to develop our awareness. That little girl’s love for her dolls is indeed, in a sense, requited: Love itself is her reward. As the poet Tennyson put it, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Where true love — not passion, and not desire — is concerned, neither subject nor object really matters. What counts is love itself.
In religion, similarly, when people claim to have accepted Krishna, Rama, Buddha, Jesus Christ, or someone else as their “personal Savior,” what matters is the depth and purity of their love. Whom they accept is less vital to their salvation than the question: Am I, myself, acceptable to God? God doesn’t need reassurance that we find Him acceptable! What He wants from us is our love, reciprocating the love He has ever given us, His human children. If our way of worshiping Him is incorrect, but the love of our hearts is selfless and pure, He will have no difficulty in correcting our error.
Whenever I hear the expression, “Praise the Lord!” the image comes to my mind of the Lord as a rich, pampered lady craving flattery as her social due! God doesn’t need our praise! He is, in Himself, completely impersonal; that is to say, He wants nothing: He simply is. In compassion, however, He is deeply personal, especially in what He wants for us: our fulfillment in perfect bliss. Otherwise, He is like a radio station broadcasting on the “wavelength” of superconsciousness. We need to tune our mental “radios” to that frequency, lest we receive some other program out of the many that are broadcast on the “airwaves” of consciousness: selfish ambition, desire, arrogance, sectarian intolerance — the innumerable distortions produced by delusion. Unless our motives are pure, we may find ourselves attuned to one of these aberrations, and delude ourselves that we are receiving “inspiration.”
How can we distinguish between false and true inspiration? As you’ll see in these pages, it depends always on whether the program we listen to influences us to live more narrowly centered in our egos, or more expansively in a self that embraces ever-broader realities. Egotism is self-imprisoning. Humility and heartfelt kindness, on the other hand, are liberating.
Every human being must discover what is, for him personally, most deeply meaningful. The more self-honestly he can address this question, the sooner he will find the way out of his dark cave of delusion into the clear light of understanding.
If what is most meaningful for you is the possession of money, visualize yourself as possessing it in superabundance. Ponder, then, the consequences of that excess. Would it make you truly free, or happy? Would you even be its possessor? Or would you be enslaved by it? An excess of wealth is suffocating. Your long-lasting needs lie far from hoarded wealth. A greater satisfaction than gloating over coffers of inanimate jewelry and gold is the innocent enjoyment of life itself. Such has been the discovery of everyone who has ever had an opportunity to make the comparison. Be pragmatic in your seeking! Be completely honest, as I said, with yourself. In the following pages, we’ll explore further ramifications of these concepts.
This book is being written also for another purpose: to emphasize the commonality of all true religions, which aim to uplift the human spirit, though many of them, unfortunately, polarize it with bigotry and intolerance. Too long have religious leaders sought the bedrock of their faith in dogmatism. It is time they realized that religion can and should promote universal harmony. The pages of history are stained with the blood of countless atrocities — sad consequences of clinging blindly to untested beliefs. This narrow attitude is certain to change, as people’s realities become more global, transformed by rapid travel and ever-speedier communication. Humanity is sure to ask itself increasingly, “How fundamental, really, are our differences?”
God is one. Truth is one. In material science the proofs of hypotheses are accepted as conclusive. Simple experimentation is the key to universal agreement, no less so as former notions of material substantiality are replaced by the knowledge that matter is insubstantial. The human body, so real to our senses, is now known to consist mostly of space. If people everywhere could be persuaded to submit their religious beliefs to the test of actual experience, they would find that dogmas constitute only a crust that covers an essentially formless reality. Many religious differences might then be resolved, for in human life the counterpart of scientific experimentation is the test of experience.
Even the teachings of various religions, each of which claims to be inspired by divine revelation, would merge in a unanimity of understanding. For the revelations themselves only declare truth: They do not, in themselves, define truth. Truth, like gas, which conforms to the shape of its container, is abstract. Those who know truth express it according to people’s capacity for understanding.
Ram Proshad, a great poet-saint of India in the eighteenth century, showed his awareness of this fact. Though a devotee of God in the personal form of the Divine Mother, and blessed frequently by visions of Her, he sang in one of his well-known songs, “Oh, I know that a thousand scriptures declare Thee to be beyond all form (nirakara). Nevertheless, appear to me as the Mother I adore!”
People’s different opinions about God need not be mutually contradictory. A study of the lives of those who have deeply lived their religions — the genuine saints, who appear from time to time in every religion(1)—reveals numerous points that they had in common. Among those similarities is an appreciation for divine aspiration whatever the form it takes, and a gentle disapproval of narrow-mindedness. The difference between being conscious of God’s presence and merely serving Him busily suggests that a more enlightened understanding may someday inspire in humanity everywhere a spirit of religious friendship and cooperation.
Human nature is infinitely complex — unlike that of lower life forms, whose responses are simple and more uniform. Even low life forms are not uniformly predictable in every reaction, the origin of which is an imperceptible center of individual consciousness.
Differences of belief among the world’s religions are inevitable. Indeed, they are desirable. For God’s expressions are ever unique. No two snowflakes are ever exactly alike: no two eyes, no two voices, no two thumbprints. The amazing variety in the universe should inspire people to a deeper appreciation for one another, without judging anyone. Only egotists want mirror images of themselves placed all around them — like Rameses II and his ubiquitous, self-laudatory statues. What a world it would be, were it not for life’s infinite variety! What a world, indeed, if everyone wanted, let us say, to be a streetcar conductor! Religious differences, once it is recognized that divine aspiration exists everywhere, ought to increase people’s appreciation for truth in all its manifestations. For those manifestations are like the facets of a diamond: displaying brilliance and beauty from whatever angle the stone is viewed. If God and truth are one, a sincere desire for understanding cannot but lead to an awareness of that oneness, and to an appreciation also for its endlessly varied manifestations. Language itself expresses similar concepts variously. The English word, love, means essentially the same thing as the French word, amour, and as the Sanskrit, prem. Despite their various shades of linguistic meaning,(2) all these differences express a universal feeling of the heart. What, except pride, can induce people to denounce one another in the name of one, universal God?
Every religion teaches, in fact, the same basic principles. God may be approached variously, but there is not one religion that tells its votaries to hate, steal, or view with indifference the sufferings of others; to suppress those ruthlessly who hold opinions different from one’s own. Emperors lusting for conquest may demonstrate such behavior, but the wise? Never! No one ever pairs wisdom with contractive attitudes such as bigotry, cruelty, and intolerance. There is a well-known saying, “Handsome is as handsome does.” It may be said with equal truth, “Wisdom is as wisdom manifests.”
Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam — every true religion, in fact — is no merely cultural phenomenon. It is dedicated to doing the divine will, which is ever to uplift human consciousness. Could any religion take out a divine patent on what simply IS? Humanity has one common Father/Mother, whom it calls variously God, Dio, Dieu, Gott, Bog, Jehovah, Allah, Ishwara, Jagadamba, and by many other names. Universal truths, similarly, are the same everywhere. Religion is no mere ornament of civilization: It is the fundamental need of all human beings. Rightly understood, true religion offers hope and inspiration impartially. Its forms vary with different cultures and different social conditioning, but always its purpose is to raise human consciousness. Truth never endorses any one culture exclusively. People who seek truth earnestly find their understanding becoming ever-increasingly refined.
What I have written so far, then, is not a plea for syncretism. It is not, in other words, a proposal to compromise true teachings for the sake of establishing interreligious harmony. Only in higher awareness, never in compromise, can the universality of truth become generally accepted. Oneness must be experienced, not merely proclaimed. It is not something society can vote into existence.
Here, then, is the purpose of this book: to encourage people everywhere to seek a meaningful relationship with God, and to establish, as a projection of that inner relationship, the brotherhood of all mankind. The noble plant, truth, will never flourish except in the soil of spiritual love. In desert wastes of dogmatism and sectarian rivalries it can only, as history demonstrates, wither and die. When the plant is nourished by “living waters” of selfless love — to paraphrase the words of Jesus Christ — it will suffice for every human need.
The religions of the world are only denominations in the one, universal religion, Truth. The classifications of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and all the others are superficial, despite every claim to the contrary. True religion merits the indigenous name for religion in India: Sanaatan Dharma, “the Eternal Religion,” or, more exactly, “The Way to Eternal Enlightenment.”(3) Insofar as evidence is actually available, sectarianism is itself a soap bubble: colorful, perhaps, but lacking in substance. For want of evidence, people with sectarian attitudes advance their claims with emotional fervor. Facts would give their reasoning powers something to “chew on,” but unsubstantiated claims usually distort truth, even as bubbles do the images reflected in them. Truth alone transcends the limitations of human understanding.
Belief is hypothesis; faith, on the other hand, is born of experience. In the evolution of thought, conditioned as we’ve become by scientific methodology, it is time we focused on the actual experience of spiritual truth, and on the wisdom brought by that experience. It is time all men recognized as superstition the separatist, but unsubstantiated, claims so long prevalent in orthodox religion.
Faith is wisdom. And wisdom is the awareness of man’s relationship to Cosmic Verity.
Paramhansa Yogananda, in common with most Indians, considered someone a saint who lived in the grace of God. Sainthood did not, in his eyes, require formal canonization by the pope of Rome. While I myself was living in India during the 1960s, a Catholic priest from Belgium challenged me, “Just what do you mean by the word, ‘saint’?” I replied, “My reference is to the ancient Sanskrit, sant, from which our own word is derived. One is a saint who, regardless of his formal religious affiliation, is holy in the sight of God.”
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Prem, for example, means spiritual love, without any limitation of ego-consciousness, and certainly without emotional passion.
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Dharma means “religion, or way,” which implies movement or development of some kind. Sanaatan (“eternal”), however, implies eternal truth — that which exists beyond time and space. I therefore prefer to render the term, Sanaatan Dharma, as “The Way to Eternal Enlightenment,” and not the standard English rendering, “The Eternal Religion.” For implied in the term is the eternity of enlightenment, and not some one and only (to those who are addicted to sectarian beliefs), “eternal way.”
The term, Hinduism, was a foreign imposition on the religious system of India, based on the scholarship of Westerners. This long-accepted view was reported by John Garrett in A Classical Dictionary of India in 1871, who wrote that “a people who spoke Sanskrit, and followed the religion of the Vedas, came into India in some very distant age from lands west of the Indus.” This view of history is coming under increasing scrutiny by modern scholars, more and more of whom reject it as false. Indian indigenous tradition gives no hint of such a view.
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