A Brief History of Religion
What can inspire the followers of the world’s different religions to see one another as fellow members in one family of Truth, with God, their Father/Mother, at the head? The beauty of this concept is surely self-evident to every thoughtful person. Its realization, however, may also appear to them, given historical precedents, impossible.
Buddha might seem to have been sanctioning sectarianism when he urged people not to depend on the Vedic gods and rituals.(1) His disciples thought his meaning was that he didn’t believe in God. In fact, he was seeking only to correct their misunderstanding of the scriptures. They took his message entirely as a doctrine of self-reliance, which to them meant the exclusion of any need for God. Thus, Buddhism evolved as an atheistic religion.
What Buddha wanted was to encourage people to take spiritual responsibility for their own lives, and not to depend passively on God, or on minor “gods,” for boons of temporary fulfillment. The fact that Buddha never said not to pray — indeed, Buddhists themselves pray to the Buddha — makes it clear that he didn’t exclude divine grace: He simply emphasized the importance of personal effort in addition to faith in God.
Swami Shankaracharya, centuries later, corrected this imbalance. It wasn’t Buddha’s teachings he contested, but only people’s misconceptions concerning them. God, he explained, is pure Spirit beyond all duality. That Supreme Spirit is the only reality in existence. Shankaracharya — Shankara, as he is also known — taught that the goal of life is union with the Absolute, which he described as Satchidananda: Existence (Sat), Consciousness (Chid), Bliss (Ananda). Advaitins—believers in advaita,(2) or non-dualism — later took his teaching not only as his reply to Buddhism, but as his definition of Hinduism itself. Nothing, they proclaimed, exists except that Absolute; all else is delusion. And since, by their understanding, manifested creation is only a dream, it doesn’t even exist.
Here was another of the misconceptions that surface repeatedly in religion. For dreams do, of course, exist — as dreams! If a person hits his head in a dream, his dream head will hurt. Creation, in other words, does exist in its own context. It simply isn’t what it appears to be.
The problem with Buddhism as the Buddhists presented it was that it admitted of nothing toward which love and devotion could be directed. Without love, spiritual progress is ineffectual, like a man on crutches in a race against Olympic athletes.
The problem with advaita, on the other hand, as Shankaracharya’s successors presented it, was comparable. They admitted of no one by whom devotion could be directed. In this concept, again, there was no place for love. Since only the Absolute exists, duality cannot exist. Who, then, can be devoted to whom? If the ego is a delusion, human love itself must be a delusion also, since it implies the duality of subject and object, lover and beloved. Overlooked in their reasoning was the fact that Shankaracharya himself had composed devotional hymns to God as the Divine Mother. Hindus quote a verse from a song of his: “Bad sons there are many, but never a bad Mother!”
Ramanuja tried centuries later to correct this flaw in advaitic reasoning. He taught a devotional form of advaita known as Vashishta-Advaita. The soul itself, he declared, is not a delusion, but exists eternally. It can, and must, develop a relationship of love with the Creator.
The great masters have never opposed one another’s teachings. Truth, after all, is both universal and eternal. It never changes. Scientific discoveries, accepted by many as finalities, lose their “finality” every few years, as new facts come to light. The masters, by contrast, have realized the eternal, forever unchanging truth. That is what they declare in every age and every religion. Their mission is to correct people’s misunderstandings of the truth. Because human beings are habitually restless, they feel attracted to complexity and shun divine simplicity. They embellish with ego-gratifying variations the pristine melodies of the soul.
Another illustration may help: If the goal is to go to the equator, those living in the Northern Hemisphere will be instructed to go south. Those, on the other hand, who live in the Southern Hemisphere will be told to go north. Those traveling southward, having been so instructed, will probably — considering usual human behavior — continue in that direction after they’ve reached the equator. When they encounter others in the Southern Hemisphere, moving northward, they cry, “No! No! you’re supposed to go south!” Thus arise sectarian differences, which are the curse of religion everywhere.
Chaitanya, centuries after Ramanuja, emphasized the importance of devotion. He was already famous as a brilliant scholar when a dramatic vision of Krishna changed his life. After that transformation, he began urging people to abandon philosophical speculation as dry and profitless — he himself was expert at such speculation — and to immerse themselves in the love of God. It is, he said, useless to try to define God: the very attempt merely leads the mind into an arid wasteland of intellectual theories. Man needs nothing except God’s love. Chaitanya taught people to worship the Lord by chanting to Him devotedly in the form of Krishna.
His teaching by no means contradicted the non-dualism of Swami Shankaracharya, even if it seemed to. Rather, he urged people to accept, and be true to, their own actual state of consciousness.
“Harer nam, Harer nam, Harer nam kevalyam!” — “the Lord’s name, the Lord’s name, the Lord’s name is man’s only path to salvation!” This was his famous declaration. Many of his followers — Vaishnavas, they are called — took his teaching literally and insisted that Krishna himself is the Lord. The truth, of course, is quite the opposite; this was their special error. Krishna, the man, could not possibly be God. God, rather, is Krishna; God is all His manifestations. The wave is not the ocean. On the contrary: the ocean has become all of its waves. It is a fallacy to claim that any one wave can be the whole ocean! Christians have made this same mistake regarding Jesus Christ.
Images of Krishna symbolize a number of deep truths. Vaishnavas, however, have accepted those symbols as the truth itself. Because tradition depicted Krishna as blue-skinned, for example, Vaishnavas say his skin was therefore actually blue. His traditional coloring is, in fact, symbolic of the sky, which in turn is a symbol for infinity. God, in other words, is infinite. Indeed, He is also nirakara, or formless. To visualize Him thus, however, is difficult for most people, who are accustomed to substantial, material realities. Hence this metaphorical portrayal.
Tradition shows Krishna playing the flute. This, too, is symbolic; it is a reference to God’s inner call to the soul to “dance” with Him in cosmic bliss. There is, indeed, a further explanation for his flute. For sometimes in meditation, when the mind is interiorized, a flute-like sound is heard in the inner ear. The yoga teachings explain that this sound appears when the body’s energy is relaxed and centered in the spine. This book is not the place, however, for an extended explanation of those esoteric teachings.
The Krishna legend, like numerous other Hindu writings, abounds with symbolism. They are meant to stir the heart with devotion rather than instruct the mind in theology. The spiritually immature need steps to climb as they ascend toward wisdom. In this sense, most people are like those little girls playing with dolls and in the process preparing themselves, inadvertently, for future motherhood.
Chaitanya’s very exhortation to chant the name of God had also a deeper meaning. It was suggested by his own frequent states of breathless ecstasy, in which all mental activity, including mental chanting and prayer, ceases. Silent communion ensues then, and God’s actual name is heard: AUM, the vibratory sound of all creation. This saving name cannot be uttered by human lips.
The Vaishnavas have dogmatically denounced advaita. Even today, they consider the two paths incompatible. In fact, however, both are facets of the one diamond of Truth, each valid in its context and on its own level of application. Man imagines himself capable of comprehending all things with the intellect alone. In this presumption he is like a little child whom St. Augustine, the great Christian theologian, beheld on a beach.
The child was trying to empty the sea by filling his little bucket with sea water, then emptying it repeatedly onto the sand. According to legend, St. Augustine asked the child, “Isn’t it foolish to try to empty the sea with that little bucket?” The child gazed up at him calmly and replied, “And isn’t it foolish to try to empty the sea of divine wisdom with the ‘bucket’ of your little mind?” Having said those words, the child vanished!
Indians were charitable enough in their spiritual consciousness to absorb such divergent beliefs without growing confused as to their longing for God. Such is the genius of that great civilization! Unfortunately, even in that country religion has brought disunity, for which blame is due to human ignorance, not to religion itself. The Indians’ hunger for truth remained, but alas, so also did bigotry. A person’s ignorance is usually displayed in the subjects that interest him, not in those to which he is indifferent. Westerners, many of whom scorn Hinduism as “superstitious,” are often, themselves, lukewarm to religious truths. The fact is, few people anywhere are spiritually mature. The great masters have had repeatedly to explain those aspects of the truth for which mankind has had a special need.
In Palestine, another great master, Moses, taught people to worship one God instead of many gods. In this respect his teachings were like Buddha’s. Both masters insisted on self-effort and right action. And both spoke against the worship of lesser deities — angels as they are called in Christian tradition — in the hope of receiving wealth, pleasure, success, and worldly power in recompense. Moses again, like Buddha, urged people to develop their own inner strength, and to shun all lesser goals as ultimately disillusioning. He taught people to love the Supreme Lord, and to obey His commandments faithfully.
In the centuries following Moses, the Jews, with considerable ingenuity, developed endless ramifications of the Law of Moses. They forgot his supreme commandment, to love God with one’s whole heart, and to love everyone in God’s name. Instead, they fell away gradually from devotion to God, and became engrossed in religious technicalities. Such always is the danger, when the priesthood of a religion gains too firm a hold on guiding it: Minor details — important to professionals in every field — take precedence over the spontaneous expression of love. Again and again, the prophets sought to guide the Jewish people back to a closer relationship with the Lord. Alas! again and again the Jews returned to their legalisms. They even went so far as to persecute their prophets, whose only desire was to help them. How sad, that humanity should reciprocate love with hatred! The truths taught by the great masters have the power to change lives and bestow on all the fulfillment they want from life. Unenlightened humanity, alas! prefers to wallow, buffalo-like, in the mud of its delusions, and rejects the divine call to the path of true, inner freedom.
The age-old emphasis in the East has been on man’s individual relationship with truth and with God. In the West, the emphasis has been on society, and on people’s relationship as a whole to reality. This difference is observable at every level. In music, for example, the melodies of Indian music suggest deep, personal longing for God. That music contrasts sharply with the intricate instrumental patterns and rich harmonies of Western music, where chord progressions suggest a crowd of people gathered together to express group feelings and group intentions.
It is time that these diverse emphases were united in one compatible whole. Social evolution needs to be balanced, now, with individual development.
What Jesus Christ taught was not a contradiction of the Mosaic Law but, as he himself stated, its fulfillment. He stressed the supreme importance of loving God. Western emphasis on group consciousness, however, soon changed what was an essentially Eastern approach to truth, bringing his teachings under the control of a central organization. In exercising this control, the church diluted Christ’s message, developing an essentially outward focus. Herein lay its own special misunderstanding of the truth. Christianity, too, needs to balance its understanding of truth: to bring organizational control into harmony with individual conscience.
Mohammed, several centuries later, was born among peoples less inclined to the meditative life. He sought to accomplish what Moses had done: Instead of many gods, he told people to worship one God, Allah. His allegiance was to “The Book”—that is to say, to The Holy Bible. His hope was to unite all those of “The Book” into a single faith. Jews and Christians repudiated the claim of Moslems that Mohammed had introduced a new revelation. Warfare between Christians and Moslems was the consequence. And sectarianism, already rampant in the West, became inflamed in the Semitic branch of religion. The conflict between this branch and that deriving from Hinduism — Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism — obscured still further any likelihood that man would ever accept that the divine truth is basically one.
Many people today are doubtful whether religion, as a civilized activity, will ever be influential in creating peace and harmony on earth. Must it remain always, then, a source of conflict? If man is to grow in wisdom — not to speak of not bombing himself out of existence!—it is important that a new understanding dawn in human hearts.
Modern science, dedicated though it is to merely material goals, has come closer to universal agreement then religion ever has. Scientific proofs in Bangkok, Tokyo, or Jakarta are not scorned by scientists elsewhere as “foreign.” Science bases its quest on experimentation, not on a priori beliefs. Many people today, impressed by the proofs of science, conclude that only materially demonstrable facts are worthy of investigation. Moral values, to them, are therefore valid in only a relative sense. This is to say that such values are subjectively valid, but not universally so. Life itself, people claim, is bereft of meaning. Some even carry this thought to the extent of insisting that morality is whatever a person wants it to be. The important thing only is that he be true to himself. Widespread confusion has resulted from this reasoning. People overlook that the principles of behavior, like religious truths, are not rooted in opinion but in natural law.
One of the basic functions of religion is to provide solutions to the moral and spiritual dilemmas of mankind. Unfortunately, what institutional religion has too often done is fan the flames; sometimes, it has even ignited them! Buddhists’ insistence that only the Buddha can grant release from the wheel of rebirth is not welcomed kindly by people who seek their salvation through Jesus Christ, or through Krishna. Hindus squabble endlessly over the distinctions of dwaita, advaita, vashishta-advaita, vaishnavism, and the worship of God as the Divine Mother. Moslems claim that Mohammed is the prophet of Allah. Christians insist that Jesus Christ is the “only way.” Christians also condemn the “pantheistic” teachings of Hinduism as animistic, and believe, erroneously, that Hindu deities are the “idols” against which Moses inveighed so sternly. What Moses was warning against, in fact, were the “idols” of material desire. The Hindu deities have always represented not materialistic goals, but spiritual principles.
Is there any hope for peace in this tumult of contradictions? Indeed there is! The hope for religion lies in religious history itself — not in its lamentable squabbles, but in the repeated efforts of great masters to return mankind to the underlying, eternal purpose of religion. Theirs is not the fuzzy broad-mindedness of people who are indifferent to, and consequently myopic regarding, spiritual truths. It is the clear focus of men and women of divine wisdom.
The great Moslem woman saint, Rabbi’a, once said, “He is no true lover of God who does not forget his suffering in the contemplation of the Divine Beloved.” The message of every great master is the same: “Forget your sorrow-producing conflicts: Love God!”
The further purpose of this book, then, is to show convincingly that behind every great scripture in the world lies the wisdom of eternity.