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WHAT IS RELIGION?

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WEEKLY MESSAGES

In this new feature of our website, we present every week a new selection of the teachings of Vedanta, taken from a variety of sources – lectures and writings of Swami Adiswarananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Literature, and other spiritual texts.

 

 

 

 

WHAT IS RELIGION?

(A Lecture Delivered in New York by Swami Vivekananda on  June 17, 1900)

A huge locomotive rushes down the tracks, and a small worm that has been creeping upon one of the rails saves its life by crawling out of the path of the locomotive. Yet this little worm, so insignificant that it can be crushed in a moment, is a living something, while the locomotive, so huge, so immense, is only an engine, a machine. You see, the one has life and the other is only dead matter, and all its power and strength and speed are only those of a dead machine, a mechanical contrivance. The poor little worm which moves upon the rail and which the least touch of the engine would surely deprive of its life is a majestic being compared to that huge locomotive. It is a small part of the Infinite and therefore it is greater than the powerful engine. Why should that be so? How do we know the living from the dead? The machine mechanically performs all the movements its maker made it to perform; its movements are not those of life. How can we make the distinction between the living and the dead, then? In the living there is freedom, there is intelligence; in the dead all is bound and no freedom is possible, because there is no intelligence. This freedom that distinguishes us from mere machines is what we are all striving for. To be more free is the goal of all our efforts; for only in perfect freedom can there be perfection. This effort to attain freedom underlies all forms of worship, whether we know it or not.

            If we were to examine the various sorts of worship all over the world, we would see that the crudest of mankind are worshipping ghosts, demons, and the spirits of their forefathers. Serpent-worship, worship of tribal gods, and worship of the departed ones – why do they practice all this? Because they feel that in some unknown way these beings are greater, more powerful, than themselves and so limit their freedom. They therefore seek to propitiate these beings in order to prevent them from molesting them – in other words, to get more freedom. They also seek to win favor from these superior beings, to get as a gift what ought to be earned by personal effort.

            On the whole, this shows that the world is expecting a miracle. This expectation never leaves us, and however we may try, we are all running after the miraculous and extraordinary. What is mind but that ceaseless inquiry into the meaning and mystery of life? We may say that only uncultivated people are going after all these things; but the question still is there – why should it be so? The Jews were asking for a miracle. The whole world has been asking for the same thing these thousands of years.

            There is, again, the universal dissatisfaction: we take up an ideal but we have rushed only half the way after it when we take up a new one. We struggle hard to attain a certain goal and then discover we do not want it. This dissatisfaction we are experiencing time after time; and what is there in life if there is to be only dissatisfaction? What is the meaning of this universal dissatisfaction? It indicates that freedom is every man’s goal. He seeks it ever; his whole life is a struggle after it. The child rebels against law as soon as it is born. Its first utterance is a cry, a protest against the bondage in which it finds itself. This longing for freedom produces the idea of a being who is absolutely free. The concept of God is a fundamental element in the human constitution. Satchidananda, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss, is, in Vedanta, the highest concept of God possible to the mind. It is by its nature the essence of knowledge and the essence of bliss. We have been stifling that inner voice, seeking to follow law and suppress our true nature; but there is that human instinct to rebel against nature’s laws.

            We may not understand what all this means; but there is that unconscious struggle of the human with the spiritual, of the lower with the higher mind, and through this struggle we attempt to preserve our separate life, what we call our “individuality.”

Even hell illustrates this miraculous fact that we are born rebels. Against the inevitable facts of life we rebel and cry out, “No law for us!” As long as we obey the laws we are like machines; and the universe goes on and we cannot change it. Laws become man’s nature. The first inkling of life on its higher level is in seeing this struggle within us to break the bonds of nature and to be free. “Freedom, oh freedom! Freedom, oh freedom!” is the song of the soul. Bondage, alas – to be bound in nature – seems its fate.

            Why should there be serpent-worship or ghost-worship or demon-worship and all the various creeds and forms for the obtaining of miracles? Why do we say that there is life, there is being, in anything? There must be a meaning in all this search, this endeavor to understand life, to explain being. It is not meaningless and vain. It is man’s ceaseless endeavor to become free. The knowledge which we now call science has been struggling for thousands of years in its attempt to gain freedom, and people still ask for freedom. Yet there is no freedom in nature. It is all law. Still the struggle goes on. Nay, the whole of nature, from the very sun down to the atoms, is under law, and even for man there is no freedom. But we cannot believe it. We have been studying laws from the beginning and yet cannot – nay, will not – believe that man is under law. The soul cries ever, “Freedom, oh freedom!”

            With the conception of God as a perfectly free being, man cannot rest eternally in this bondage. Higher he must go, and were the struggle not for freedom he would think it too severe. Man says to himself: “I am a born slave, I am bound; nevertheless, there is a being who is not bound by nature. He is free and the master of nature.” The conception of God, therefore, is as essential and as fundamental a part of the mind as is the idea of bondage. Both are the outcome of the idea of freedom. There cannot be life, even in the plant, without the idea of freedom. In the plant or in the worm, life has to rise to the concept of individuality; it is there, unconsciously working. The plant lives in order to preserve a principle; it is not simply nature. The idea of nature’s controlling every step onward overrules the idea of freedom. Onward goes the material world, onward moves the idea of freedom. Still the fight goes on. We are hearing about all the quarrels of creeds and sects; yet creeds and sects are just and proper; they must be there. They no doubt lengthen the chain, and naturally the struggle increases; but there will be no quarrels if we only know that we are all striving to reach the same goal.

            The embodiment of freedom, the master of nature, is what we call God. You cannot deny him. No, because you cannot move or live without the idea of freedom. Would you come here if you did not believe you were free? It is quite possible that the biologist can and will give some explanation of the perpetual effort to be free. Taking all that for granted, still the idea of freedom is there. It is a fact, as much so as the other fact that you cannot apparently get over, the fact of being under nature.

            Bondage and liberty, light and shadow, good and evil, must be there; but the very fact of the bondage shows also this freedom hidden there. If one is a fact, the other is equally a fact. There must be this idea of freedom. While now we cannot see that this idea of bondage, in uncultivated man, is his struggle for freedom, yet the idea of freedom is there. The consciousness of the bondage of sin and impurity in the uncultivated savage is very slight; for his nature is only a little higher than that of the animal. What he struggles against is the bondage of physical nature, the lack of physical gratification; but out of this lower consciousness grows and broadens the higher conception of a mental or moral bondage and a longing for spiritual freedom. Here we see the divine dimly shining through the veil of ignorance. The veil is very dense at first, and the light may be almost obscured, but it is there, ever pure and undimmed – the radiant light of freedom and perfection. Man personifies this as the ruler of the universe, the one free being. He does not yet know that the universe is all one, that the difference is only in the concept and not in things themselves.

            The whole of nature is worship of God. Wherever there is life there is this search for freedom, and that freedom is the same as God. Necessarily freedom gives us mastery over all nature and is impossible without knowledge. The more we know, the more we become masters of nature. Mastery alone makes us strong; and if there be some being who is entirely free and a master of nature, that being must have a perfect knowledge of nature, must be omnipresent and omniscient. Freedom must go hand in hand with these; and only that being who has acquired these will be beyond nature.

            Blessedness, eternal peace, arising from perfect freedom, is the highest concept of religion, underlying all the ideas of God in Vedanta: absolutely free existence, not bound by anything – no change, no nature, nothing that can produce a change in him. This same freedom is in you and in me and is the only real freedom.

            God is always established upon his own majestic changeless Self. You and I try to be one with him, but find ourselves diverted by nature, by the trifles of daily life, by money, by fame, by human love, and all these changing forms which make for bondage. When nature shines, upon what depends its shining? Upon God, and not upon the sun or the moon or the stars. Wherever anything shines, whether it is the light in the sun or in our own consciousness, it is he. He shining, all shines after him.

            Now, we have seen that this God is self-evident, impersonal, omniscient, the knower and master of nature, the Lord of all. He is behind all worship, and all worship is directed to Him whether we know it or not. I go one step farther: That which we call evil is his worship too. This too is a part of freedom. When you are doing evil, the impulse behind is that of freedom. It may be misguided and misled, but it is there, and there cannot be any life or any impulse unless that freedom is behind it. Freedom throbs in the heart of the universe. Such is the conception of the Lord in the Upanishads.

            Sometimes it rises even higher, presenting to us an ideal before which at first we stand aghast: that we are in essence one with God. He who is the coloring in the wings of the butterfly and the blossoming of the rose-bud is the power that is in the plant and in the butterfly. He who gives us life is the power within us. Out of his power comes life, and the direst death is also his power. He whose shadow is death – his shadow is immortality also.

            Take a still higher conception; see how we are flying like hunted hares from all that is terrible, and like them hiding our heads and thinking we are safe. See how the whole world is flying from everything terrible. Once when I was in Benares, I was passing through a place where there was a large reservoir of water on one side and a high wall on the other. There were many monkeys around that place. The monkeys of Benares are huge brutes and are sometimes surly. They now took it into their heads not to allow me to pass through their street; so they howled and shrieked and clutched at my feet as I passed. As they pressed closer, I began to run; but the faster I ran, the faster came the monkeys and they began to bite at me. It seemed impossible to escape. But just then I met a stranger, who called out to me, “Face the brutes.” I turned and faced the monkeys and they fell back and finally fled. That is a lesson for all life: face the terrible, face it boldly. Like the monkeys, the hardships of life fall back when we cease to flee before them. If we are ever to gain freedom, it must be by conquering nature, never by running away. Cowards never win victories. We have to fight fear and troubles and ignorance if we expect them to flee before us.

            What is death? What are terrors? Do you not see the Lord’s face in them? Fly from evil and terror and misery and they will follow you. Face them and they will flee. The whole world worships ease and pleasure, and very few dare to worship what is painful. To rise above both is the ideal of freedom. Unless a man passes through pleasure and pain he is not free. We have to face them. We strive to worship the Lord, but the body comes between, nature comes between him and us and blinds our vision. We must learn how to worship and love him in the thunderbolt, in shame, in sorrow, in sin. All the world has ever been preaching the God of virtue. I preach a God of virtue and a God of sin in one. Take him if you dare. That is the one way to salvation. Then alone will come to us the truth ultimate which comes from the idea of oneness. Then will be lost the idea that one is greater than another. The nearer we approach the ideal of freedom, the more we shall come under the Lord and troubles will vanish. Then we shall not differentiate the door of hell from the gate of heaven, nor differentiate between men and say, “I am greater than any other being in the universe.” Until we see nothing in the world but the Lord himself, all these evils will beset us and we shall make all these distinctions; for it is only in the Lord, in the spirit, that we are all one, and until we see God everywhere, this unity will not exist for us.

            The man who is groping through sin, through misery, the man who is choosing the path through hell, will reach freedom, but it will take time. We cannot help him. Some hard knocks on his head will make him turn to the Lord. The path of virtue, purity, unselfishness, spirituality, he will know at last, and what he has been doing unconsciously he will do consciously. The idea is expressed by St. Paul: “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.” This is the lesson for the whole world to learn. What have these philosophies and theories of nature to do, if not to help us to attain this one goal in life? Let us come to that consciousness of the identity of everything and let man see himself in everything. Let us be no more the worshippers of creeds or sects with small, limited notions of God, but see him in everything in the universe. If you are knowers of God, you will everywhere find the same worship as in your own heart.

            Get rid, in the first place, of all these limited ideas and see God in every person – working through all hands, walking through all feet, and eating through every mouth. In every being he lives, through all minds he thinks. He is self-evident, nearer unto us than ourselves. To know this is religion, is faith. May it please the Lord to give us this faith! When we shall feel that oneness we shall be immortal. We are immortal even physically: one with the universe. So long as there is one that breathes throughout the universe, I live in that one. I am not this limited little being; I am the universal. I am the life of all the sons of God. I am the soul of Buddha, of Jesus, of Mohammed. I am the soul of all the teachers, and I am the soul of all the robbers that robbed and of all the murderers that were hanged. Stand up then! This is the highest worship. You are one with the universe. That alone is humility – not crawling upon all fours and calling yourself a sinner. That is the highest evolution when this veil of differentiation is torn off. The highest creed is oneness. I am So-and-so – is a limited idea, not true of the real “I”. I am the universal; stand upon that and ever worship the highest through the highest form; for God is spirit and should be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Through lower forms of worship man’s materialistic thoughts rise to spiritual worship, and the universal infinite one is at last worshipped in and through the spirit. That which is limited is material. The spirit alone is infinite. God is spirit, is infinite; man is spirit and therefore infinite; and the infinite alone can worship the infinite. We will worship the infinite; that is the highest spiritual worship. How grand these ideas are, and how difficult to realize! I theorize, talk, philosophize, and the next moment I come up against something and I unconsciously become angry; I forget there is anything in the universe but this little limited self. I forget to say, “I am the spirit, what is this trifle to me? I am the spirit.” I forget it is all myself playing. I forget God; I forget freedom.

            Sharp as the blade of a razor, long and difficult and hard to cross, is the way to freedom. The sages have declared this again and again. Yet do not let these weaknesses and failures deter you. The Upanishads have declared: “Arise! Awake! and stop not until the goal is reached.” We will then certainly cross the path, sharp as it is, like the razor, and long and distant and difficult though it be. Man becomes the master of gods and demons. No one is to blame for our miseries but ourselves. Do you think there is only a dark cup of poison if man goes to look for nectar? The nectar is there and is for every man who strives to reach it. The Lord himself tells us: “Give up all these paths and struggles. Do thou take refuge in me. I will take thee to the other shore; be not afraid.” We hear that from all the scriptures of the world that come to us.

            The same voice teaches us to say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” It is difficult, all very difficult. I say to myself this moment: “I will take refuge in thee, O Lord; unto thy love I will sacrifice all, and on thine altar I will place all that is good and virtuous. My sins, my sorrows, my actions, good and evil, I will offer unto thee; do thou take them and I will never forget.” One moment I say, “Thy will be done,” and the next moment something comes to try me and I spring up in a rage. The goal of all religions is the same, but the language of the teachers differs. The goal is to kill the false “I” so that the real “I,” the Lord, will reign. “I, the Lord, am a jealous God. Thou shalt have no other god but me,” say the Hebrew scriptures. We must cherish God alone. We must say, “Not I, but thou,” and then we should give up everything but the Lord. He, and he alone, should reign. Perhaps we struggle hard and yet the next moment our feet slip, and then we try to stretch out our hands to mother. We find we cannot stand alone. Life is infinite, one chapter of which is, “Thy will be done,” and unless we realize all the chapters we cannot realize the whole.

            “Thy will be done” – every moment the traitor mind rebels against it; yet it must be said again and again if we are to conquer the lower self. We cannot serve a traitor and yet be saved. There is salvation for all except the traitor, and we stand condemned as traitors – traitors against our own selves, against the majesty of God – when we refuse to obey the voice of our higher Self. Come what will, we must give our bodies and minds to the supreme will. Well has it been said by the Hindu philosopher, “If man says twice, ‘Thy will be done,’ he commits sin.” “Thy will be done” – what more is needed? Why say it twice? What is good is good. No more shall we take it back. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for evermore.”

 

What is Religion?” by Swami Vivekananda, quoted from “VIVEKANANDA, WORLD TEACHER: His Teachings on the Spiritual Unity of Humankind”, Edited and with an Introduction by Swami Adiswarananda.

 

 

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