(A paper presented in an international seminar on “Dynamics of Religious Trajectories” at M.O.P Vaishnava College for Women, Chennai.)
Key Perspectives: the follies of religion; structure of a religion; great fall worm in the rose; inner remedy; psychology of religion rediscovering; inner core of religion; towards a spiritual religion of humanity; culture of oneness.
When we look at contemporary religious scene we find two contradictory trends. On the one hand a strong and brutal resurgence of religious fundamentalism; on the other hand, in the more enlightened minds, a seeking for a more universal spirituality beyond the church, dogma and the priesthood of organised religion. We have to admit that religion in its outer form has been a factor of division and conflict, war and strife. But in its inner essence, religion is or can be a powerful and uniting force which can steer humanity towards a deeper and lasting unity and provide a firm spiritual foundation for a globalising world. But to transform religion into such a uniting force we need a new paradigm of religion based on its spiritual source. This paper is an attempt to arrive at such a uniting paradigm of religion based on an integral spiritual vision of life. The article examines the main causes behind the failure of organised religions and presents a spiritual paradigm based on a path of inner transformation of religion.
The Follies of Religion
History of human civilisation is replete with the crimes and follies committed by organised religions: its bloody religious wars, the horrors of its persecutions, its hatred for science and philosophy, its scorn for those belonging to other religions, the tyranny of its priest craft, the oppressive rigidity of its social customs, and in our modern age, religious fundamentalism of all kinds. Many noble souls like Joan of Arc fell victim to religious persecution. A great scientist like Giordano Bruno was burnt alive in the stake in the name of religion. The words of Christ that “Letter Killeth” literally come alive with the red letter of blood in the history of organised religions. Curiously, Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest exponents of religion in our modern age, was so strung by the evils of organized religion, he went to the extent of saying:
“If you want to be religious, enter not the gate of any organized religion. They do a hundred times more evil than good, because they stop the growth of each one’s individual development. Study everything, keep your own seat firm. If you take my advice, do not put your neck into the trap. The moment they try to put their noose on you, get your neck out and go somewhere else. As the bee culling honey from many flowers remain free, not bound by any flower; be not bound. Enter not the door of any organized religions. Religion is only between you and your God and no third person must come between you. Think what these organised religions have done! What Napoleon was more terrible than those religious persecutions? If you and I organize we begin to hate every person! It is better not to love, by loving only means hating others. That is no love that is hell”. 
The Structure of a Religion
What is the reason for this miserable failure of organised religion? To answer this question, we must have a clear understanding of the structure of a religion. Any religion can be viewed as a collective organism with a physical, vital, mental and spiritual body. The inner most core of every religion is a spiritual intuition or revelation or experience revealed to a prophet or a sage or many such religious leaders. The other important part of this inner core is the spiritual discipline and practice for inner realization of the spiritual ideal. This is the spiritual core of a religious organism. Then comes the mental body of religion made of its philosophy or theology; the next outer layer is the vital body of religion made of its mythology, ceremony and rituals and the social customs; and finally the outer most shell or the physical body made of the church, mosque and the temple and the priest. The organised religion belongs to the most physical and vital body of a religion. What we mean by organized religion is some concept of God revealed in a scripture and institutionalised in the Church, plus some mythology, ceremony, rituals and priesthood which claims to mediate between God and Man, asserting that its path or prophet as the only way to God, and without any vivifying spiritual experience, knowledge, practice or presence which is the real soul of a religion.
All these four dimensions of religions are needed for an integral spiritual life. But the soul and life of a religion is its inner spiritual core. All the other three outer layers of religion derive their life from this inner dimension.
The Great Fall
A religion can live and do its spiritual work only when this spiritual core is kept living, active and progressive with a constant stream of spiritual aspiration, practice, experiences and realisation. When this inner core of religion becomes stagnant than the religion begins to die. The main problem with most of the organized religions is that they have strayed away from their life-giving spiritual source and what remains is a skeleton of dogma and rituals. The major mistake of organized religions is that they ignored in practice, while professing in words, the warning of Christ “The Spirit saveth, letter killeth”. These religions instead of relying on the “Spirit that Saveth” have clung to the “Letter that Killeth”.
And when the Spirit withdraws, the Ego, cult-ego, takes over¾the mental ego with its rigid and inflexible dogmas and the vital ego with its urge to dominate, possess and rule. So the history of organized religions has become mostly a part of the political history of humanity, rather than its spiritual history, with the mental and vital ego trying to conquer the world in the name of God!
This brings us to the question why or how such a degeneration comes about? It happens to all human institutions, a process of disintegration or entropy which pulls everything into the mud. In religion, the story runs somewhat in the following line. A great spiritual teacher arrives spreading Light all around. The Light radiating from the teacher spiritually elevates or liberates a few of his close disciples, awakens a spiritual aspiration in a few more and initiates a more or less widespread religious, moral and intellectual awakening in the community. The great Master establishes a spiritual idea in the collective consciousness of humanity. And one day the Master leaves his body and soon after begins the Fall. The teaching spreads more and more into the masses, but at the same time the great and luminous thoughts of the Master pass into ignorant and darkened minds, and in the process gets diluted, distorted and betrayed by the ego, desire, passions, prejudices and superstitions of the lower nature of the followers. Finally when the “teaching”, twisted, and bruised in the torture chambers of ego and desire, emerges, it is a dark opposite of the original thought — masking itself with the divine Name. What remains is the great Name, the Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Nanak, Mohammad, the legends and the temples built around them. As Sri Aurobindo describes the process in splendid muse:
“A glory of lightning traversing the earth-scene,
Their sun-thoughts fading, darkened by ignorant minds,
Their work betrayed, their good to evil turned,
The cross their payment for the crown they gave
Only they leave behind a splendid Name.
A fire has come and touched men’s heart and gone;
A few have caught flame and risen to greater life.”
Worm in the Rose
So the canker, the worm in the rose, is the cult-ego. And the most pernicious form of this Ego in religion is the dogmatic assertion that my path or prophet is the only way to God or heaven and all others who follow other paths belong to the Devil and are condemned to eternal hell. It is this ignorant assertion which is the source of all fanaticism and fundamentalism in religion and has made religion into an instrument of division and hatred among people. All other aspects of religion like scriptures, mythology, ceremony, rituals, symbols can remain in the future, because they are necessary aids in the progressive spiritual evolution of the soul. But this dogmatic and exclusive assertion is a phantom of the past and has no place in the future. Some orthodox sections of the society may cling to these phantoms and they may raise aggressively to the surface as it is happening at present, in the form of fundamentalist terrorism. But they are allowed to rise in order to be eliminated. This is one of the methods of Nature for getting rid of things of the past which are harmful or no longer helpful to the future evolution of humanity. So we need not be too disturbed by the growing menace of fundamentalism and religious terrorism. They are allowed to rise in order to be thrown out. If the warrior-energies of nations, instead of fighting amongst themselves, join together to fight the menace, then it can be defeated.
The Inner Remedy
But inflicting a military defeat on the forces of fundamentalism is only a temporary solution to the problem. The permanent solution to the problem lies in an inner moral, psychological and spiritual regeneration of religion. The outer reformation through reason or social renovation is helpful but not enough. There has to be an inner regeneration of the mind and soul of religion.
There are three possible approaches: first is the psychological approach or in other words, application of psychology to the religious and spiritual development of the individual; second is to revive the spiritual core of each religion and reinvent or reshape the other outer dimensions in the light of this recovered spiritual intuition and experience; third is a spiritual religion of humanity. Let us briefly examine these possibilities.
The Psychology of Religion
The psychological approach is one of the unique positive features of eastern religions. While most of the semitic religions are based on belief and dogma, eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism evolved their disciplines based on deep psychological insights into human nature. The main principles of eastern spiritual psychology are:
i) Self-knowledge and self-mastery are the basis of spiritual development.
ii) There is perfect equality only at the spiritual level but not at the psychological level. In the psychological level, human beings differ widely in their nature, temperament, capacities and development. Every seeker should be given some understanding of the highest spiritual ideal. But for practical discipline, each seeker has to be taken as he is in his present condition of development, provided with an ideal and discipline which are in harmony with his present nature, capacities, temperament and in this way slowly and gradually, step by step, raised to the highest ideal.
iii) An ideal religious system must be able to engage the whole being of human and all the parts of their inner and outer being – physical, emotional, intellectual, dynamic, ethical, aesthetic and spiritual. There must be a symbolic physical activity for expressing the inner adoration in an aesthetic gesture and a physical discipline for maintaining sound health; a beautiful symbol or interesting stories for the emotional being; an idea for the mind to hold on; an ethical discipline for moral development of the individual; a psychological and spiritual discipline for the spiritual development of the inner being, and for the realisation or manifestation of the inner divinity in man.
iv) Similarly, an ideal religion should have a path or a discipline for the spiritual development of every type of seeker–the physical person who lives predominantly in his bodily consciousness, the emotional person who lives in his heart and feelings, vital person who lives in his dynamic life-force and will, the intellectual who lives in his thinking mind and the more inwardly advanced yogi or the mystic type who is capable of going within in deep meditation.
These are universal psychological principles which are valid for all times, not only for religion but for human development as a whole. They are also some of the principles of Indian Yoga. We believe that the religious and spiritual discipline of the future has to be based on the principles of Yoga.
But in religion, psychology is only a means towards spirituality or spiritual experience.
Rediscovering the Inner Core of Religion
This brings us to the second approach which is to revive the original experience which gave birth to the religion and rediscovering the inner discipline for arriving at these experiences.
This approach is helpful in taking another step forward but not enough for a total spiritual regeneration of religion. For Spirit and Nature are never static but always progressive. Nature in evolution always moves forward towards new, deeper, higher or larger ideals and experiences. Here comes a major defect in the spirit of religions: its conservative spirit which asserts all the truths of religion or life or man or God are revealed once for all, for all eternity, in a single scripture and no further progress or revelations are possible. But the Spirit is not only a static eternity beyond time but also a dynamic and progressive Force, manifesting its timeless and infinite potentialities in unending time. This progressive revelation of the Infinite is an unending process. As Sri Aurobindo wrote in a letter to a disciple with a touch of humour:
“Truly, this shocked reverence for the past is a wonderful and fearful thing! After all the Divine is infinite and the unrolling of the Truth may be an infinite process — not a thing in a nutshell cracked and its contents exhausted once for all by the first seer or sage, while others must religiously crack the nutshell all over again, each trembling fearful not to give the lie to ‘past’ seers and sages.”
Swami Vivekananda also said some thing similar in one of his lectures:
“Is God’s book closed. Or is it still a continuous revelation going on? The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran and all other sacred books are but so many pages and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded. I would leave it open for all of them. We stand in the present but open ourselves to the infinite future. We take in all that has been in the past, enjoy the light of the present and open every window of the heart for all that will come in the future. Salutations to all the prophets of the past, great ones of the present and to all that are to come in the future.”
So no scripture of the past, present or future however luminous and profound it may be, can contain the entire truth of the Spirit. No revelation or written word can entirely express the Infinite. In fact each scripture or spiritual teaching or revelation expresses only that much of the truth of the spirit which the humanity of the age, epoch or the civilization can understand and assimilate. As the human consciousness progresses in its course of evolution, new vistas of the Spirit are revealed to the illumined vision of yogis, seers and sages giving birth to new religions, scriptures, philosophies and teachings. This process will go on until a day may come in the future when outer intermediaries like scriptures and prophets will be no longer needed because humanity as a whole will be ready to receive the direct guidance of the Spirit from within. And until then, religions, to remain alive and relevant for the future, have to break away from the prison of their conservative attitudes and keep their mind, heart and soul open to new revelations of the Spirit.
Towards a Spiritual Religion of Humanity
The third approach which can perhaps lead to a lasting spiritual transformation of religion is a path of universal spiritual humanism. There are two things which are needed for the spirit of religion to recover its highest truth and prevent it from falling again into division and darkness. First is an Idea or Ideal sufficiently universal and non-dogmatic to prevent the formation of cult-ego and its assertion “my path, my prophet, my God is the only way to heaven”. Second is an inner and outer discipline for making the idea concrete and real for the consciousness and life of the whole mankind.
First is the Idea or the Ideal. As we are insisting constantly in our discussions, in religion idea is not enough. But a narrow idea leads to a narrow experience or a narrow interpretation of the inner experience. There should be a broad and universal idea, acceptable not only to the religious mind but also to the modern secular mentality. We have in our modern age, the ideal of secular humanism based on the triple values of French revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. The strong point of modern humanism is its emphasis on the unity and equality of the whole humanity. This is a futuristic conception because the future destiny of the collective evolution of humanity lies not in the “liberty” of the individual and the communal ego but in the inner and outer realization of the fraternity of the whole humanity. In fact, this ideal of fraternity is also one of the essential messages of all religions. A brotherhood of all souls in the City of God is one of the common themes of all religions:
But the main defect of modern humanism is that it is an intellectual and political creed trying to realize an idea or sentiment in the external life by organizing the needs and interests of conflicting individual and communal egos, without making any attempt to make the idea real and living to the inner being of the masses. The defect of religious fraternity is that, in most of the religions, it is a sectarian brotherhood in which non-believers are not only excluded but also predestined to hell! But the true brotherhood which can unite humanity is not this phony sectarian brotherhood but a universal inner brotherhood which includes all humanity. Only a progressive inner moral, psychological and spiritual evolution of humanity leading towards the realization of its own inner spiritual fraternity can brings about the ultimate millennium dreamed by the religious and secular thought of humanity. So this ideal of inner Fraternity is the key-factor which can perhaps embrace and synthesize the secular and religious aspirations of humanity and give it a unified direction to a single goal. Sri Aurobindo envisages this new Ideal of the future in a spiritual religion of Humanity:
“A spiritual religion of humanity is the hope of the future. But this is not meant what is ordinarily called a universal religion, a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and dogma and outward rite. Mankind has tried unity by that means; it has failed and deserved to fail, because there can be no universal religious system, one in mental creed and vital form. The inner spirit is indeed one, but more than any other the spiritual life insists on freedom and variation in its self-expression and means of development. A religion of humanity means the growing realization that there is a secret Spirit, a divine Reality, in which we are all one; that humanity is its highest present vehicle on earth, that the human race and the human being are the means by which it will progressively reveal itself here. It implies a growing attempt to live out this knowledge and bring about a kingdom of this divine Spirit upon earth. By its growth within us oneness with our fellow-men will become the leading principle of all our life, not merely a principle of co-operation, but a deeper brother-hood, a real and an inner sense of unity and equality and a common life. There must be the realization by the individual that only in the life of his fellow-men is his own life complete. There must be the realization by the race that only on the free and full life of the individual can its own perfection and permanent happiness be founded.” (5)
We may include in this spiritual unity, the ideal of modern ecology, unity of man with Nature. But here also, like the humanistic ideal, the ecological ideal has to be spiritualized. In the spiritual vision, Nature is not only physical but also psychological and spiritual. Nature is the creative force of the Divine Unity and the source of all physical, psychological and spiritual energies in our own being and the universe. Our human nature is part of universal Nature. Not only our physical being is part of the physical energies of Nature but our psychological and spiritual energies are part of the corresponding energies in universal Nature. So in this spiritual vision, ecology means unity and harmony with Nature in all levels of our being¾physical, psychological and spiritual. When we integrate the spiritual vision of human unity with the spiritual vision of the unity of Man and Nature, we have the Religion of Oneness, Oneness of all existence in the divine unity of the Spirit.
But we have arrived only at the mental form of the Ideal of oneness and not yet at its spiritual core. For the aim of spiritual religion of oneness is not to establish the spiritual ideals of unity in the thought and life of the human mass. This may be a part of the work but only a part. If it stops here it will end in the same way as modern humanism or ecology, an intellectual, scientific or political creed with a marginal or considerable impact on the thought and life of humanity but not a radical transformation of human consciousness. For this higher transformation, the ideal of oneness has to become a concrete psychological and spiritual fact to the inner experience of humanity, like for example, in the same way we feel our own body concretely as part of our own self. To do this, first of all we must know what is precisely the psychological and spiritual nature of this unity. We give here below the personal experiences of great seers of the modern age which may give some understanding of the inner nature of the unity-consciousness:
“On that first day, while I was in that state and more conscious of the thing around me, I had the first most extraordinary experience. There was a man mending the road; that man was myself; the pickaxe he held was myself; the very stone he was breaking was a part of me; the tender blade of grass was my very being and the tree beside the man was myself. I almost could feel and think like the road mender, and I could feel the wind passing through the tree and the little ant on the blade of grass I could feel. The birds, the dust and the very noise were a part of me. Just then there was a car passing by at some distance; I was the driver, the engine and the tyres; as the car went further away from me, I was going away from myself. I was in everything or rather everything was in me; inanimate and animate, the mountain, the worm and all breathing things.” (6)
So the essence of the experience is the complete disappearance of the ego or the separate ‘I’ and the sense otherness, leading to the consciousness of an all-inclusive Oneness in which all creation is felt as a part of our own self. To generalize and establish this experience, and not just the idea, in the consciousness of humanity will be the aim and mission of a spiritual religion.
The Culture of Oneness
But the most important part of the work of a spiritual religion of the future is to discover the path which will lead the individual and collective consciousness of humanity to the Oneness-experience. We will discuss briefly here the basic principles of the path.
The first step is to unify our own individual being. Only like can perceive the like. To feel and perceive the unity and harmony that governs life and world we have to unify and harmonize the various parts of our own being our body, life, mind and soul and feel harmonious and whole within us. So integration of our body, life and mind around the spiritual centre of our being is the first step in the path towards unity.
The second principle of the path is that unity is not something to be created. It exists as an eternal fact in the spiritual dimension of our own being. We have to become conscious of this eternal fact of life which is within us. So the second step is to create a system of education and culture by which each individual can become conscious of the truth of unity either by entering into the spiritual depth of his being through a discipline of active introversion or allow the unity-consciousness in the depth to invade and possess his external being through a discipline of passive, silent and receptive openness or a dynamic surrender. The educational challenge here is to make the ideal of oneness compelling and attractive to all the parts and faculties of our being, thought, feeling, will, emotions, sensations and the dynamic vital force so that it leads to a concentration of the whole being on the idea. The ideal of education is to help each individual to find his own path towards oneness. Here, we have to apply all the psychological principles of Yoga, which we have discussed earlier.
We must remember here that there is not a single experience of oneness or a single path to it. There are many paths each leading to a unique experience. It can be experienced as the unity of our own impersonal and universal Self through a path of knowledge. Or else it can be experienced as the unity and universality of an impersonal divine Love or that of an all-beautiful and all-loving divine Person through a path of love, devotion or surrender. It can also be experienced as the unity and universality of an impersonal or personal divine creative Force and Wisdom through a path of works and action. By a synthesis of all these path we can experience the integral fullness of the Divine Unity and Oneness in all its aspects.
The third principle of a oneness-culture will be renunciation of ego. For ego is the source of division and conflict in human consciousness and the main obstacle to the perception of unity. So a clear experiential understanding of the structure of human ego and a progressive dismantling of the ego from the inner being and the outer life of man will be an important and integral part of the education and discipline of a oneness-culture.
This inner discipline and education of the individual has to be supported by a collective environment which actively promotes, encourages and rewards every activity which leads to or helps in the understanding and expression of oneness and the values of oneness like unity, mutually, harmony, sharing, and self-giving. In other words, the present competitive culture has to be replaced by a partnering culture in which every individual and the collectivity makes a sincere and creative effort to link himself or itself with other individuals and collectivities in a mutually complementing harmony.
Finally, the ideals, principles and values of oneness must move not only the thought and feeling of people but also the action and decision levers of the society leading to a massive mobilization of the economic, material and human resources for building oneness in the inner being and outer life of humanity and in the planet as a whole. This requires some broad guidelines for decision-making. Here is one from Mazini:
“Love, humanity, ask yourself whenever you do an action in the sphere of your country or your family, if what I am doing were done by all and for all would it advantage or injure humanity. And if your conscience answers it would injure humanity desist, desist even if it seems to you that an immediate advantage for your country or your family would ensure from your action. Be apostles of this faith, apostles of the brotherhood of nations and of the unity of the human race.”
We may spiritualize this aphorism of Mazini in the light of our integral vision of oneness and restate it in the following lines:
“Love and know the Spirit and Self in all which is the ultimate ground, depth and source, the indwelling divinity and the sustaining unity of man and universal Nature. Enter deep within your own being and find your deepest and true self in which you become spiritually one with all humanity, all Nature and all existence in the essence of your being. Live in conscious communion with this higher Self and for its cosmic purpose in humanity. Whenever you have to do an action or take a decision in the sphere of your family, community, organization, nation or humanity or Nature ask your spiritual self if what I am doing is done by all will it lead to the awakening, realization and manifestation of divine oneness in humanity? And if your spiritual intuition answers in the affirmative then do it. But if the indication of your spiritual self is negative desist, desist even if it seems to your reason, social sense, ethical conscience, or humanistic sentiment that it will lead to some immediate short-term advantage to your family, community, nation or humanity. Be the apostles of this faith, apostles of the oneness of all existence.”
- Swami Vivekananda, Collected Works, Vol. 2, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p. 474
- Sri Aurobindo, (1972), Collected Works, Vol. 28, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p. 7
- Sri Aurobindo, (1972), Collected Works., Vol. 26, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, p. 135
- Swami Vivekananda, Collected Work., Vol. 2, Advaida Ashram, Mayarathi, p. 374
- Sri Aurobindo, (1972), Collected Works, Vol. 15, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, 554-55
- Pupul, Jaykar, J. Krishnamoorthy, A Biography, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, p. 48
- Rishabehand, Sri Aurobindo, Life Unique, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, p. 219fn.