Essays and Other Miscellaneous Writings
Essays and Other Miscellaneous Writings
Abstract and Keywords
This part includes translations from select writings of Tagore that originally appeared in contemporary Bengali journals and later included in his (Bengali) Collected Works. These include polemical exchanges between Tagore and some of his noted contemporaries on important aspects concerning the religious, moral, and philosophical life of the Hindus. These serve to demonstrate his deep philosophical foundations in Upanishadic thought, particularly in relation to Vedantic ideas of bliss (ananda) and universal love, but equally in quotidian culture.
(p.3) 1. The Power of Universal Love*
… We have known certain poets who, in their literary careers, began by imitating other poets. They produced a lot of poetry, some extremely good. However, once we began hearing these, they appeared to have been set to a fixed tune. They were pleasant to the ears but lacked uniqueness or originality. Finally, after much wandering and groping in the dark, they suddenly discovered the depths of their own poetic talent. We marvelled at the songs that he now composed and the poet too was wonderstruck by the way he was able to give sublime expression to his feelings. The poet who has discovered his own language and is able to use it creatively is naturally a very happy person. There is such great delight in speaking one’s own language; each word that the poet utters is like a child he has fathered. There is an apt example of this (p.4) at home. When Bankimchandra1 produced his Durgeshnandini,2 he had not truly discovered himself. The writing was good but it did not consistently carry the author’s own music. At the time, if we had been given to understand that a gifted novelist has produced Durgeshnandini by translating or else by adapting from another novel, this would not have taken us by surprise. But the same cannot be said of his other works: Bishbriksha,3 Chandrashekhar,4 or other writings from his later years.
What is true of individuals also applies to communities. It occurs to us that we still have not been able to put our finger on the essential trait of the Bengalis…. Going through Bengali literature that is now available to us, it appears as though such literature is mostly inspired by English or other languages or at least that is likely to be the case. The main reason for this is that we still have not been able to capture the true essence of the Bengali language and culture. Scholars of Sanskrit will no doubt agree to this, accusing Bengali writers of neglecting the Sanskrit language. In reply, we could say that the language of neither the Sanskrit scholar nor of the English-educated is authentic Bengali. There is Bengali neither in Sanskrit grammar nor in the English. That language resides in the heart of the Bengalis….
(p.5) The more we try to put together that which truly represents the language, sensibility, or feelings of the Bengali people, the more the Bengali language will be benefited. It is for this reason that the publisher of this volume deserves the gratitude of all those who love and support the Bengali language….
High-sounding phrases like ‘Universal Love’ coming from foreigners sound pleasant and attractive to our ears but why do we fail to catch the same note that wandering beggars habitually keep singing at our doorsteps?
- Oh! come to us, brothers Jagai and Madhai,5
- come and join the rapturous singing in Lord’s praise!
- the wicked have assaulted us and perhaps there is more to come
- but no matter, let us still bless you with the Lord’s name,
- you have flung brick-bats at me but I nonetheless offer you my love,
- O come, brothers Jagai and Madhai.
The Baul may be heard to sing:
- In order to love, you must be prepared to die,
- the self-seeking can never know love.
One must prepare to die right at the beginning. There truly cannot be any love unless you give up yourself.
Another Baul song goes the following way:
- Only he who has killed his ego is spiritually perfect,
- virtues accrued over a billion past births are now with him.
- He who wagers his life only to wear the jewel of love,
- ceases to have any fear of death.
(p.6) He who has already given up his life can have no fear of death. Since he loves this world, he turns into the world itself. He is no longer the petty ‘I’ who may fear approaching death; he is the whole universe.
Indeed, one may ask, ‘Of what use is this love?’ This is like asking the flower what it possibly gains by spreading fragrance. The flower will no doubt reply that it could not but spread fragrance and that was in its very nature to do so. Likewise, the lover will say that his nature was to give up himself to the object of his love and that that was his only means to happiness:
- The greedy, driven only by selfishness, will no doubt wonder,
- could someone truly seek death for the sake of another?
To this the Baul replies:
- A man’s work is determined by his nature,
- can the meaning of love ever dawn on one who does not love?
To the Baul there is but one instrument that produces music the world over:
- That magical, single-stringed instrument is with Gorachand,
- oh friend! it carries this entire universe
- on that single string, the string of love!
In that string, there is infinite energy at work; in an instant you may know anything that you need to know about this universe. You sit close to the person you love and the feelings from one heart keep flowing to the other all the time. If your heart is joined in love with the Universal Heart, it becomes possible to know everything about this world. Who else has been able to sing the glories of love in this manner?
Why can’t we immerse ourselves in love for this world? This is because we are so anxious to retain our individuality. But the bonds of love surround this world and the world is constantly (p.7) trying to unite with you. It is not the wish of this ocean-like world that some streams detach themselves from it and flow out along some unchartered course. Rather, it desires that all streams keep flowing in unison, singing the same song. Only then is some synthesis possible in this world…. One who wishes to assert his individuality in opposition to the rest of the world cannot survive long….
But we have a quarrel with the publishers of this volume. Why did they have to include Brahmo songs and the compositions of the English-educated in it as well? In buying this book, our intention was not to hear the best songs; on the contrary, it was to capture the spontaneous outpourings of the untutored and innocent heart. There is a particular reason for saying this. People belonging to the class of the English-educated are all alike. Their education is similar and their hearts too are fashioned in the same mould. The modern English-educated poet echoes our own sentiments and this fails to excite us. On the other hand, when we discover ourselves in older literature, this is a matter of great wonder and delight to us. This is more exciting and delightful because therein we discover that our deepest feelings are not made to rest on some floating drift-wood which we may call modern but in the eternal heart of the Infinite Man. This restores our faith in ourselves….
(*) Source: ‘Bauler Gaan’ (The Song of the Baul), Rabindranath Tagore’s review of the collection of songs called Sangit Sangraha: Bauler Gatha. First published in Bharati, Baisakh 1290 BS/April–May 1883 and included in the collection of essays titled Samalochana (1888); reproduced in RR, vol. 15, pp. 104–8.
(1) Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (1838–1894), commonly rated as Bengal’s first major novelist, also wrote several essays and treatises of which the Dharmatattwa (1888) and the Krishnacharitra (1886, 1892) are the best known. He contributed significantly to Hindu cultural revivalism in Bengal.
(2) Bankim’s first novel, published in 1865, marked an important stage in the evolution of Bengali prose. Translated into English as The Chieftain’s Daughter by Charuchandra Mokerjee in 1880.
(3) One of Bankim’s best-known novels, published in 1873. Translated into English as The Poison Tree by Miriam S. Knight in 1884.
(4) Bankim’s novel published in 1875. Translated into English by Manmathanath Roychaudhuri in 1904 and Debendra Chandra Mallik in 1905.
(5) Two miscreants of Nadia, West Bengal. They are believed to have been converted to Vaishnavism by Nityananda and Chaitanya through loving persuasion. This transformation of men, otherwise known to be wicked, into Vaishnavism is a recurring theme in Vaishnav songs and poetry.
(p.8) 2. Dharma*
Whether within living beings or the non-living, there is a Great Consciousness at work that progressively reveals Itself. Similarly, whether we speak of the saint or the sinner, there is within everybody the ideal of infinite virtue (punya) that keeps working all the time. The road to heaven is open for everybody; no one is denied of this. However, you may find that some have taken to the main thoroughfare, while others, either due to their own ignorance or a sense of curiosity, go into a bylane. Ultimately, however, after passing through several lanes and bylanes the latter are back on the main road itself, even though the wandering would have added much to their weariness. All paths lead to the same destination, the only difference being that some of them are more circuitous than others.
Vice and Virtue
It is not as though there exists an entirely independent category which we may call vice or sins (pap). The sinner is not necessarily a man radically set apart from the virtuous; it is just that the virtuous possesses a few things that the sinner does not. The religious thinking of the sinner lacks a basis in consciousness and hence remains undeveloped. Sin represents lack, falsehood, and death. Hence, other than sin, everything else will continue (p.9) to exist. Just as darkness gradually gives way to light, similarly, under the effects of consciousness, sin progressively turns to virtue (punya).
That which is eternal we may call dharma. It is because one can eternally take refuge in dharma that one may overcome the fear of death. It is within the framework of this eternal Truth that this world and all life within it are strung together as in a garland. All things on this earth, ranging from the smallest particle to that which is truly gigantic, are tied to one another in this fashion. It is thus that we are all connected through dharma. However, it may well be that some are conscious of this, while others are not. Without this pervading consciousness in us, we are bound to remain servile; the ties of consciousness, when active, lead to love.
The Nature of This World
Dharma requires that we consciously and willingly follow the eternal Truth that lies within Nature. That which protects and prevents injury is a shield, that which holds us together is dharma. What is the nature (dharma) of a particular object? It is the quality which is internal to that object and because of which that object becomes an object. What, then, is the nature of this world? That fixed and unmovable law on which this world rests is truly its nature. That is also the nature of every single particle that exists on this earth.
Let me illustrate my point with the aid of an example. One of the primary duties (dharma) in this world is concern for others. Selfishness is quite contrary to the nature of our worldly duties. (p.10) Whether you like it or not, you will be called upon to work for people other than yourself. In this world, every single atom exists for the sake of other atoms that are contiguous to it; no single atom can stay contented with itself…. If even one particle of sand were to be destroyed, this would lead to changes in the entire universe. A man acquires learning, thereby mentally advancing himself. But this can be a selfish act; little does he realize that there are millions of others who could equally lay claim to this learning. Irrespective of whether or not you impart this yourself, this stream of mental improvement will flow down to your children and flow on even beyond them. Everywhere around you there will arise the tides of progress. A man will one day depart from this world but his entire life and work has to be left behind for the sake of this world. Even after a man was dead and gone, not even a moment of his life can be lost to this world. The laws of nature are indeed so relentless and strict.
This world does not subject anyone to social ostracism and deny to him the services of a washer-man or barber as is otherwise done with an outcaste. The moon, the sun, rain, and all other natural forces continue to tirelessly serve the world. This is because what is naturally a part of this world cannot work in opposition to it. Sinners and deceitful people may indeed be likened to students of some junior class but the fact that they have sinned is not reason enough for us to drive them out of school. The horrors of hell as described in the Bible are really a false scare. It has been aptly said that sin is but the lack of something, nothing more. And this makes sin so very weak that one would never need some giant crusher to grind it to dust. The entire world continues to move against the idea of sin, day and night. Sin has indeed been transformed into virtue and self-contentment expanded into an awareness of the whole world.
A man who has taken the refuge of dharma ceases to have any fear of death. Here, death does not mean annihilation or a radical change in condition. It is simply the absence of consciousness. This lack of consciousness is contrary to dharma. The more one relies on dharma, the more he gains in consciousness, the more he is led to meaningful experiences. That Grand Consciousness that has inspired all life on earth also flows through me, inundating me with that consciousness. Also, there is no likelihood of our comprehending this world through knowledge; it must be comprehended through consciousness.
Someone remarked that since there is cruelty in nature everywhere, there was nothing to prevent us from assuming that that indeed was the nature of this world. This charge is best answered by the very existence of the world. Our world would not have survived even for a moment if cruelty was to be its core principle and violence its very foundation. That which is readily visible on the surface is not dharma. On the surface we witness endless change all around but isn’t changelessness the underlying principle of this world? All around us we find variety and difference but behind it all isn’t there a pervading unity? If that were not so, this world would have been a mayhem of utter chaos and disorderliness, not the heavenly abode of Beauty. If that were not so, nothing could have been born and nothing would have survived.
There are many who see nothing but evil and inauspiciousness in this world. Going by this view, this world could not have survived even for a moment. Admittedly, there is all around us grief and despondency, pain and suffering. Even so, the music of this world (p.12) has not ceased to play. This is so because deep within the world-soul there resides bountiful Joy. That joyful light has not been extinguished so far; rather, all grief and despondency have been consumed by this luminous Joy. The world may be compared to (Lord) Siva. Siva, clad in darkness and in the company of millions and millions of spirits, is lost in the frenzied dance of dissolution (tandava). Lodged inside his throat is deadly poison, and yet he continues to dance. Venomous snakes adorn his body, and yet he continues to dance. He lives in the cremation ground, the site of death and deathliness, and yet he continues to dance. Kali, the very symbol of death, is eternally poised atop his chest, and yet there is no end to his Joy. Upon viewing the deadly serpents with their raised hoods and the bluish hue emanating out of the poison lodged in his body, we might be led to conclude that Siva is an unhappy person. On the other hand, do we not also hear within the matted hair the perennial stream of the holy Bhagirathi flow on with its joyous, gurgling sound? Do we really know the reason behind Siva dancing away to the accompaniment of his subdued music and the beating of his drum (damaru)? Many take him to be a poor man but it is in his house that (goddess) Annapurna eternally resides providing food and sustenance to all. You may react to the sight of dust and grime on Siva’s body, the ashes collected from the cremation ground, and the frightening signs of death everywhere. But these are only external signs; beneath the figure smeared with deathly ashes, do you not also find the indestructible silvery body, beautiful and shining as the moon? He is the conqueror of death (mritunjaya). And do we really know death? We have known death only in its frightening form, with its bared fangs and lolling tongue but that very death happens to be Siva’s beloved. Holding death in an embrace, Siva remains seated in a state of ecstatic Joy. We really have no means of knowing the true form of the goddess Kali. To us, she appears only as death but the true devotee knows her to be no different from Gauri, the benign goddess. We have known Kali only as a forbidding (p.13) goddess but I trust a few would have also seen her enchanting form (mohini-murti). Everyone calls Siva a yogi but what is he meditating on when absorbed in a state of yoga?
(*) Source: ‘Dharma’, first published in Bharati, Chaitra 1290 BS/March–April 1884. Later included in the collection Alochana (1885); reproduced in RR, vol. 15, pp. 28–34.
… It does not stand to reason that liberation would come to us only outside human habitation, atop some distant Himalayan peak. Liberation essentially means freedom for the soul but this freedom is not negative. The more we expand our being and consciousness, the more the soul too extends its field of existence. The path to extend our consciousness is through love. Liberation comes not through annihilating the objects of love but by expanding our love even wider. Driven by our material (p.14) interests, we try to accumulate wealth and happiness for ourselves. However, happiness cannot be truly realized unless we are prepared to share it with others. This is why the miserly people of this world are deprived of a larger happiness brought on by love. Our personal happiness turns frail and petty when we do not join it to Universal Happiness. Likewise, the desire to seek liberation only for oneself leads a man to aspire the summit of spiritual freedom where, eventually, he may find himself seated alone, to the exclusion of the rest of humanity. By comparison, freedom and liberation obtained through love is very different in character. Love never forsakes the world which God Himself has not forsaken. True liberation comes only when one makes this Universe one’s own and oneself a part of the Universe….
(*) Source: Rabindranath Tagore’s review of a short story by Nagendranath Gupta called ‘Mukti’ (Liberation). First appeared in Sadhana, Pous 1298 BS/January 1892; reproduced in Satyendranath Roy, Rabindranather Chintajagat: Dharmachinta, Rabindrarachana Sankalan, 2nd ed. (Calcutta: Granthalay Pvt. Ltd, 2007), part I, p. 17. Roy wrongly attributes the story to the Bengali essayist Chandranath Basu.
4. Chandranath Babu on the Virtues of Vegetarianism*
In the Aghrayan (November–December) issue of the journal Sahitya, Chandranath Babu has written as essay bearing the title (p.15) ‘Ahaar’ (Food). In his opinion, eating food has two objectives: to provide nutrition to the body and sustenance to the soul. He further states that while it is a well-known fact that food provides nutrition to the body, that it could also strengthen the soul is a secret that only India has known. Chandranath Babu alleges that it is their English education that has led the English-educated to lose sight of this profound truth and this, in turn, has led to their ultimately losing all capacity for developing religious feeling and for hard work, the natural goodness of heart, purity of character, and spiritual power. It is also his opinion that suitable instructions on matters of food and diet are best given by our traditional priests and pundits. Should this not be possible for some reason, instruction must come from religious scholars. Having argued thus, our author then goes on to make the claim that non-vegetarian food cannot provide the nutrition to either the body or the soul in the way vegetarian food can….
I place below my own views on this essay. Surely our author knows that the newly educated not only consume non-vegetarian food but are also disinclined to respect the counsel of their peers. Now there are certain matters that are open to debate and discussion and food is certainly one of them. However, for the entire length of the essay, the author has employed but only one argument and that too at the very end. This comes simply in the form of his signature: Chandranath Basu!
In the days gone by when rulers called for the head of some enemy, they would similarly write a very small note authorizing execution. Our own priests and gurus too are given to such cryptic commands in the name of religion. By comparison, our (p.16) English masters appear to behave very differently. When ordering someone’s execution, they produce detailed statements in explanation. Similarly, before they assert their own views, our English teachers ensure that they are able to furnish supporting evidence lest they lose their jobs. It so happens that we are now the subjects of an English government and the students of English teachers. Hence, even though we respect Chandranath Babu’s signature for what it is worth, we also expected some supporting arguments….
I have no knowledge of the discourse on food and diets prevalent in early India and Chandranath Babu too has refrained from disclosing this to his English-educated readers. All the same, Babu Rajendra Lal Mitra1 has quite clearly established that meat was on the diet of early Indians.
It is true that at a certain point in time, Brahmins had given up animal food but the Brahmins alone do not constitute Indian society. If in India we somehow had a population of teachers, priests, and sages running into about 20 crores, that population would have been decimated very soon. In early India, there was the meditative Brahmin but also the industrious Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. We had both brain and brawn and, hence, it was only natural to have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. There was self-restraint imposed by our customs but also the freedom to step outside these. At a time when we had the virility of the Kshatriya, the pristine qualities of the Brahman shone through just as the act of forgiveness becomes more meaningful for the powerful. India was ruined the day our entire society attempted to turn pious and the virile races lost their virility by emulating (p.17) the unenergetic Brahmin. Over time, this docile quality among our people rendered them completely incapable of productive work. Then, the patience of the cowardly began to be projected as the patience of the saintly, and lethargy and aversion to work assumed the name of renunciation….
I am not aware of any other country discovering the relationship between diets and the health of human souls but in medieval Europe too the clergy subjected themselves to several taboos concerning food and the conduct of daily life. But did starving and emaciated clergymen account for all of Europe? Did contemporary Europe not also have its warrior communities? Does not this harmonious balance of contrary forces or qualities form the very basis of social life? …
It is still not definitively known if nutrition derived from food affects the soul or which kinds of food are particularly conducive for the growth of spirituality. Science has still not been able to determine this and if such secrets be at all known to some religious scholar, it would be more beneficial if, rather than depend on gurus or priests, Chandranath Babu were to reveal this to us himself.
It is on the whole true that eating in small quantities or fasting occasionally is an effective way of keeping our natural instincts and desires in check. There can be no easier method of self-control than this. However, curbing our natural desires does not necessarily enhance our spiritual qualities…. If we considered our passions and desires to be our enemy, then the only way to overcome fear of the enemy would be to end our own life….
Why is it that in the Gita, Krishna considers karma (activism) to be the best path for men? This is because it is work itself that increases our sense of authority and power. It is in work that man gives free rein to his desires but also manages to hold these in check. The more varied our work, the larger the challenge thrown at us, the greater is our self-application and self-restraint. Human will is to work as steam is to the steam engine. When working with the engine our aim is to maximize heat and energy by constantly (p.18) adding coal to the fire in the boiler and that, in turn, produces the steam that runs the locomotive. A man’s life runs much the same way. It is entirely another matter if by liberation you mean putting out all the heat and fire and remaining buried in some place as a reptile hibernates in cold weather. This certainly was not Krishna’s advice. To accomplish our work through our will and then to control the will through work is the best possible course for man.
Some of us may indeed suggest that the regulation of diet helps to take our mind away from material desires towards the spiritual. In reply, I would say that for a man whose profession is rowing a boat, occasionally handling the oars to keep the body fit will not be of any use. There is, in any case, such great need for self-control in our daily lives that to treat this only as a hobby does not make sense. There are many men who exercise great self-control in matters of fasting and in carrying out other religious ceremonies and vows but show no self-control in the routine activities of their lives. This is the hidden danger in fancy self-control. This may produce restraint with words but licentiousness in everyday work. A man could chant some holy mantra while secretly harbouring an evil plot in his heart; he may be charitable towards Brahmins but deceive others in business; he may regularly bathe in the Ganga and yet retain a tainted character.
If activism is taken to be the best course available to man and if meeting our routine domestic responsibilities alone does not constitute work, if a man considers social work to be valuable work, then the body cannot be looked down upon as something inferior or unholy. Under the circumstances, physical strength and bodily work will constitute an integral part of spirituality….
Though there has been conflicting opinion on the respective merits of vegetarian and animal food, Chandranath Babu has been quite forthwith in making his choice. He believes that non-vegetarian food is incapable of producing the kind of nutrition that vegetarian food can. It has been for over a hundred years that we have closely felt the mental and physical vigour of a ruling race that is by habit non-vegetarian. We fail to understand how Chandranath (p.19) Babu has overlooked this completely…. The bodily strength of this ruling race is quite visible in the closed fist that perilously stays close to our noses and in case we deny the mental vigour of this race, this would only expose our own intellectual failings.
In order to substantiate his arguments, the author has compared the ways of the strictly vegetarian habits of the traditional Hindu scholar with the flesh-eating modern Bengali. However, such a comparison is invalid for several reasons. First, such a comparison cannot be based on certain generalizations or assumptions made about each of the two categories. Second, even if we were to assume that our traditional pundits were stronger than the flesh-eating modern Bengali and that they lived longer, it cannot be said with any certainty that this was on account of their food habits. It is commonplace that the life of the traditional pundit is quite free of anxieties whereas for the modern young man, life poses several problems and anxieties. There is nothing that puts human life at a greater risk than prolonged anxiety….
The major allegation that Chandranath Babu makes against the modern English-educated is that they show no self-restraint and are easily drawn into a life of excessive indulgence. I am afraid I cannot accept Chandranath Babu’s word if he was to suggest that traditional pundits had no such weaknesses. Regrettably, our author fails to see the distinction between those who behave like greedy animals and those who feed on animals. It is well known that the way to win over a Brahmin’s loyalty is to offer him sumptuous food and gifts. The traditional Brahmin pundit, in fact, is a model of gluttony. Such a pundit would have no scruples in accepting the hospitality of even an outcaste and subsequently deny this misdemeanour in public. His grandson who relishes fowl cutlets at least has the honesty not to conceal this from public knowledge.
In any case the claim that Bengalis of an earlier generation were able to fully conquer their passions and that only animal food has made people lose self-control has no basis in fact. The writer ought to know that none of us have really met such a Bengali from an earlier generation. Those that we have met are (p.20) well past their youth and already preaching the virtues of self-control! This creates the false impression that men of an earlier generation were only given to chanting god’s name….
It is not my intention to compare a vegetarian diet with the non-vegetarian. All that I wish to state is that it does not behove us to adopt a prophetic tone in what we write. There has now emerged a trend within contemporary Bengali literature to pontificate on matters in the manner of a guru. Even when truth is told in this fashion, it amounts to slighting truth because the veracity of any truth does not rest on the credentials of any person but the reasonableness of the arguments he makes…. To keep showering views that we consider infallible can cause amusement to others, sometimes even nuisance.
(*) Source: ‘Ahaar Sambandhe Chandranath Babur Mot’ (Chandranath Babu’s Views on Food and Eating). First appeared in Sadhana, Pous 1298 BS/December–January 1892. Later included in the collection Samaj-Parishista; reproduced in RR, vol. 6, pp. 685–9. Chandranath Basu’s essay ‘Ahaar’ appeared serially in the journal Sahitya between Sravan 1297 BS/July–August 1890 and Chaitra 1298 BS/March–April 1892.
(1) Babu Rajendra Lal Mitra (1822–1891) was a renowned Indologist from Bengal. He authored over a hundred works in English, Bengali, and Sanskrit, ran a journal called Vividartha Sangraha, was the first Indian president of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, was the president of the British Indian Association, and was awarded the titles of Raja and CIE.
5. Foreign Exposition of the Vedanta*
… There are occasions when, in attempting to free ourselves of one mystery, we unwittingly surrender ourselves to another.
(p.21) By citing the tenets of Vedanta, Mr Deussen1 has claimed that in ascribing the act of creation to an inert, immutable Brahman and in positing a hiatus between the human soul and the Divine, we only create obstacles on the road to human liberation. Prima facie, this claim cannot be denied. On the other hand, when Vedanta says that the world is not substantively real and that the hiatus between Brahman and the human soul is but an illusion, there are a few questions that immediately come to mind, the answers to which are not easily obtained.
- Question: Whose is the illusion?
- Answer: Of the jiva (human being)
But this cannot be a satisfactory answer to the question since jiva cannot be created out of a state of its own illusion.
The philosopher Sankara says that it is because the human soul is shrouded by the three attributes (upadhis) of the gross (sthula), subtle (sukshma), and causal (karana) bodies, that it sees itself as independent of Brahman. But from where did the body assume its form? Sankara raises this question and then answers it as follows:
- The body is determined by our actions (karma).
- But how is karma itself caused?
- By the effect of various human emotions (raga).
- How are these emotions caused?
- By one’s ego (abhimana).
- How is the ego born?
- From the lack of discernment (aviveka).
- How is this caused?
- (p.22) From Ignorance (agyana).
- What causes Ignorance?
- This has no cause. Ignorance is eternal and indefinable.
From this we can deduce that it is Ignorance (agyana, avidya) that creates the division between jiva and Brahman. However, that which we call Ignorance cannot have an autonomous existence; it has to be seen as depending on someone. Now if this Ignorance belongs to Brahman, then Brahman cannot be called immutable (niranjan, nirvikar). If, on the other hand, one has to separately acknowledge its eternal existence, this amounts to acknowledging Brahman and Ignorance as two distinct entities. But this is merely juggling with words since we have, in effect, acknowledged both Brahman and non-Brahman, albeit under different names. We claim that both Brahman and Ignorance are eternally present and ineffable, and yet it is Brahman alone that is untouched by Ignorance. If we accept this line of argument, then it becomes possible to accept under different names or forms, jiva and Brahman, the world (jagat) and god (iswara).
In the philosophy of Vedanta, all analogies used to explain the world as an Illusion are dualistic in nature. A typical example here would be the illusion of a pearl within an oyster. For such an illusion to occur, at least three things are required: the oyster, the pearl, and the person who suffered the illusion. A mirage too occurs in similar ways. We simply fail to imagine how, without there being an object of illusion, without the object appearing as something else and the person being so misled, there can occur any illusion at all.
In concluding his essay, the analogy that Mr Deussen uses to explicate his point is itself self-contradictory. Let us reproduce the relevant passage in the original: ‘It is not the falling of the drop into the infinite ocean, it is the whole ocean, becoming free from the fetters of ice, returning from its frozen state to that what it is really and has never ceased to be, to its own all-pervading, eternal, almighty nature.’
(p.23) The underlying meaning of these lines is that we must not separate the river that feeds into the ocean from the ocean itself for that would amount to duality. We could not even say that upon melting, a frozen ocean assumes its natural shape since that would imply aberration in something that is taken to be changeless. Rather, we should say that the ocean remains what it is and what it always has been. However, even this fails to provide meaning since some time back we had wondered about just what happened when the liberated in life (jivanmukta) met with death. Did he, like the river, ultimately meet the ocean or assume the natural state of the ocean after all the solid ice had melted on account of the summer heat? From this it emerges that when we spoke of death coming to jiva, it was not jiva that we meant. That which died was not jiva. How then do we talk of the jiva dying? This is born of an illusion. Whose was this illusion? If this be born of the Brahman, then we might as well grant that the Brahman too underwent some mutation. In truth, however, even though an illusion, this cannot be attributed to anybody. This illusion is self-born, it is eternal and ineffable.
It must be admitted then that even if we were to assume a dualistic position, our thoughts are bound to go round and round this great riddle. All the same, when the non-dualist starts accusing the dualist of irrationalism in order to augment his own position, then he too must be made answerable. Perhaps in the very depths of spiritual life there is a strange synthesis of dualism and non-dualism that remains shrouded in what is an impenetrable mystery for our little minds. On that level, perhaps, we may defy all mathematical rules and logic and begin to call that which is One, Two, and vice versa.
We have some queries too on what Mr Deussen has to say on the subject of religious morality in Vedanta.
Mr Deussen states that there lies a moral necessity behind the repeated cycles of life and death or creation and dissolution. Thus re-birth becomes necessary so that our good acts are suitably (p.24) rewarded and wrongdoings appropriately punished. Our lives, after all, must be governed by the fruits of our actions.
In non-dualism, however, such inexorable rules can have no meaning. Where there is nothing apart from One, there can be no room for moral relationships.
The work Atmanataviveka of Sankara has already been cited to show how karma originates in Ignorance and how Ignorance is eternally present. We assume our physical bodies because something as indescribable as karma originates in something equally indescribable as Ignorance, and it is on this account that we also undergo repeated births and experience pain. Now in our opinion, this may be called anything but a rule of religious morality. In the first place, we do not quite know what Ignorance is and there is no way of knowing either since this is beyond description (we wonder why it is called Ignorance at all since Ignorance too presumes some determinate quality). Second, it is not clear just what is meant by the suggestion that karma originates in Ignorance for, in common understanding, that which we call karma has no autonomous existence. Eventually, we are given to understand that the physical body of the jiva takes shape on account of certain other properties which have no known origin or support. To put this in the way I have is only as good as saying that we do not quite know how the physical body was first born or even that some explanation offered in this regard would remain unintelligible to us.
In the light of the above argument it may be said that Vedanta offers us no cogent explanation about how our physical bodies came to exist or why they must continue to suffer unhappiness or pain. Since we attribute our suffering to something as indescribable as karma, we might as well admit that we do not actually know the cause behind this suffering.
This matter has been taken up in the Brahma Sutra of Vedvyasa.2 Vedvyasa says that we are not in a position to say that before (p.25) creation there was no division of labour since karma and creation are eternally bound with one another as cause and effect. Take the case of the seed and the tree. The seed is the cause behind the tree as is the tree of the seed and in this way, it is impossible to determine a point of origin.
From this it may be deduced that there is a perennial relationship between karma and creation. In this case what we understand by karma is perhaps comparable to the English word ‘force’ which is to say that it represents something that we do not understand even though there may be some cognizable suggestions offered to us.
No matter how we perceive things and irrespective of what Vedanta has to say, it seems meaningless at the end of it all to ask why we exist. We exist and this existence of ours is eternal. And it is this very existence that is the cause behind all our pain and misery. Hence, it is equally pointless to ask why we continue to suffer. In that event, there can be no room for moral or any other form of necessity.
As regards the theory of liberation, we may say that when Ignorance has no beginning in time (anadi), it is also endless (ananta). So long as It exists, there can be no liberation for anybody. In the Vedantic view, I am a part of all and all is within me and, hence, so long as there is Ignorance somewhere, It will continue to affect me. To keep oneself apart from Ignorance sounds like someone trying to run away from his own shadow.
In answering the question why Brahman created this world, the Brahma Sutra says lokavattva lilakaivalyam. Just as in this world children playfully assume various roles like that of a king, (p.26) etc., the world too is Brahman’s field of Play (leela).3 In this view, He alone whose Will brought about this world can grant deliverance to it. In other words, should He so will or else withhold His will, He can stop appearing as this world and reveal his True Self (shuddha swarupa). Hence, without the dissolution of this world, the question of individual liberation would be meaningless. This is because to manifest Himself as a person or not is entirely a matter of His will. Even if he chooses not to manifest Himself as a particular Person, so long as there is this world, he would continue to enact His Divine Play.
Elsewhere, when dealing with the chapter titled ‘Discourse on Nature’, Mr Deussen has demonstrated that first, according to Kant,4 anything concerning time and space or the relationship between cause and effect lies within the confines of our minds, not outside. Hence, when we see an object as an object, it is the mind that is at work. If this subjective understanding were to be somehow detached from the object, we will be able to view its Real Nature (yatartha swarupa). This Being that transcends time and space is what Schopenhauer5 calls Will, and Vedanta, atma. This One without a Second (ekamebadwitiyam), this Will or atma is completely without any qualities: there is neither sin, nor unhappiness, nor even existence.
In this Pure Bliss, untouched by unhappiness and desire, there appeared signs of infatuation and sinfulness (this occurred not at (p.27) some particular time: it could be true of today as for all time and even before time). This atma then assumed certain qualities.
Let us reproduce the original passage:
Now there was formed,—not at any time, but before all eternity and forever, like an inexplicable clouding of the clearness and heavens, in the pure, painless, and will-less bliss of denial a morbid propensity, a sinful bent: the affirmation of the will to life. In it and with it is given the myriad host of all the sins and woes of which this measurable world is the revealer.
The human mind has always been asking: why did creation take place? Why did unhappiness come into existence? Both Sankara and Mr Deussen would have us believe that once something that is endless and indescribable casts its shadow on something that is identical in nature, unhappiness is born. Simply put, this only suggests that there is really no way of knowing what creation is, what caused it or why we must continue to undergo unhappiness and sin. And in Vedanta, there are no clear answers as to how one may free oneself of Ignorance or for just who is it that is freed.
Buddhist nihilists6 do not acknowledge any of this. They do not even acknowledge that world is manifesting itself. In their view, there is neither Brahman, nor this world; there is neither me, nor you…. That which is eternal and may never be destroyed may be called Maya or even the Truth. But once you accept its existence you cannot also accept the possibility of liberation. However, for the nihilists who do not accept anything, matters are quite easy. You may ask them: ‘If there is only emptiness and void, how is it that you are able to prove anything?’ This they will answer by proving that they are not out to prove anything! If I were to say: ‘If there is only void, why do you at all raise the matter of liberation?’ To this they will say: ‘Since I do not exist, (p.28) it is inconceivable that I should be saying something!”’ Hence, for one who denies everything it becomes much easier to have his way. The moment you claim that there is but One, it becomes impossible to prove that there may not exist another. Similarly, when a dualist in philosophy, it is beyond anyone to demonstrate that the two can become One.
You may ask me what I personally think of this matter. Frankly, I do not have a clue as to what all this is. All I know is that the love, devotion, compassion, affection, and aesthetic sense that there is in me seeks endless fulfilment. It is in these sundry qualities that I savour the Eternal, in Him I find my fulfilment. No matter who He is or where He is to be found, He is my Brahman, in Him lies my liberation.
(*) Source: ‘Vedanter Videshiya Vyakhya’ (Vedanta as Expounded by a Foreigner). First appeared in Sadhana, Bhadra 1301 BS/August–September 1894; reproduced in Roy, Rabindranather Chintajagat: Dharmachinta, pp. 20–5.
(1) Paul Deussen (1845–1919), a well-known German Indologist, a student of Arthur Schopenhauer, and an acknowledged scholar of Vedanta, taught Sanskrit and Vedanta in several European universities. He visited India in 1892–3. His major work, Das system de Vedanta (The System of the Vedanta), originally written in German, was published in 1883.
(2) The Brahma Sutra is commonly attributed to Badrayana. It is a collection of aphorisms from the Upanishads dealing with the Absolute/Brahman. It is a key text for all followers of the philosophical school of Vedanta. It is one of the three texts that constitute the Prasthan Traya (triple canon) for Vedantists; the others being the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Interestingly, the Gita is a smriti and hence belongs to a lower order of authority. The Brahma Sutra has been interpreted differently by various sub-schools within Vedanta.
(3) A concept particularly significant in the theistic traditions such as in Vaishnavism. ‘Leela’ in Vaishnavism is inscrutable Divine Play.
(4) Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) was a renowned German philosopher of the European Enlightenment. He used a combination of reason and experience to go beyond the shortcomings of traditional philosophy. His best-known work is Critique of Pure Reason (1781).
(5) Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was a well-known German philosopher considerably influenced by early Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, who in turn influenced several generations of German Indologists and philosophers. The original German version of his The World as Will and Representation was published in 1818–19 (second edition in 1844).
(6) Nihilism is a philosophical doctrine which suggests that life has no objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. This has been known to lead to an attitude of despair which sees the very existence of the world as pointless. Buddhist nihilists were known as Sunyavadis.
6. Can God Be Worshipped as an Image?*
In our country, there is often a debate on whether God is or is not endowed with form. However, in the work under review, this (p.29) question has not been dealt with in so crude a manner. Rather, it tries to discuss whether or not God may be worshipped as an image.
Some people will promptly answer this question by arguing that those who cannot conceive a formless God will be bound to fall back on the use of an image. Our author, however, does not take this middle-of-the-road course. His argument, quite categorically put, is that there can be no worship of a formless God. This leaves man with only two choices: either to consider himself identical with God (sohaham) or else take to the worship of images. The intention of our author, apparently, is to begin striking from the opposite end: rather than demolish images in the manner of fabled iconoclasts, he wishes to destroy those who are opposed to image worship. But his mission is not simply to protect image worship, it is also to argumentatively demolish the very possibility of worshipping a formless God.
It is always easier to establish on the basis of fact, rather than argument, what is possible and what is not. It is hard to convince a king of a tropical country that extreme cold can turn water into ice. However, he only has to take a tour of the Himalayan region to be convinced of this. However, our author does not appear to believe in this method; he believes that his case may be established on the basis of argument alone.
Muslims do not worship images and yet it cannot be claimed that among them there is not a single devotee of God. Our author may not understand what makes this possible but it is nonetheless true that devotion among Muslims does not come through the worship of images.
(p.30) None will dare say that Nanak1 was not one of the greatest of devotees to be born on this earth and it is equally true that he never proclaimed that man was God. Thus, the fact that he gave up conventional image worship and propagated the idea of a formless God could have had only one reason. Surely he must have found delight in the worship of a formless God and found conventional image worship to pose problems on the way. There would be someone even within the Brahmo community whose heartfelt devotion led him to discard the worship of images. Now, in the opinion of our author, this Brahmo gentleman may have been misled but surely there can be no doubt about the sincerity of his devotion. This he had demonstrated not merely through argument but by the willingness to suffer every act of social persecution and hardship.
There was a time when India did not know image worship. However, it is difficult to produce historical evidence in support of this claim for a period so far removed in time. The examples that I have cited from the modern period will at least go to prove that some devotees have been disillusioned enough to voluntarily give up image worship and that there are several devotees, scattered all over the world, who have derived immense satisfaction from the worship of a formless God.
In the book the author argues that while such men may not worship images, it is inconceivable that thereby they are also worshipping a formless God. In his opinion, that which has a name and attributes is bound to have some form and since the knowledge of God is based on these categories, this too must possess some form. But this is arguing for the sake of argument. If I said that A travelled along a curved line and B did not, you might counter by saying that actually B too travelled along a curved line since (p.31) all straight lines are imaginary. What you say is true but mere argument. Our language cannot exceed our minds and our minds too are constrained by certain limits. This makes language itself relative. That which appears sharp to the naked eye turns out to be blunt under the microscope; that which appears smooth and even to the naked eye turns out to be jagged and uneven when magnified a hundred times. Hence, I dare not suggest that even within the worship of a formless, there can not appear any traces of form!
If that be so, you may ask what harm can there be in the worship of God through images? After all, if the formless God cannot be grasped by the mind, we might as well worship Him through an easier way. In truth, however, while forms can serve as useful aides for the mind, this does not necessarily take us to the conclusion that the formless is made easier and cognizable through some form.
Suppose I wished to describe the ocean but the ocean was at some distance away. Now just as I was about to commence my journey to see it for myself, there appears the scholar who warns me that the ocean was so large that I could not have an accurate opinion about it even after I had actually viewed it. His argument was that the only way to conceptualize something as large was to mentally reduce it. Hence, it would be just as good to dig a pond in the neighbourhood and take that for the ocean. But this is intriguing. If upon viewing the ocean we could not conceive the ocean for what it truly was, how was this possible through looking at a pond?
The boundless sky is beyond our imagination but I cannot, for that reason, prefer not view it at all. Unless I am able to see what I can possibly see of the sky, I am not satisfied. It is this attempt to know the Boundless and the Infinite that constitutes worship. When, even at the end of our journey He still eludes us, we break into a song in praise of the Lord: ‘O Omnipresent Lord! Verily have I failed to fathom your Presence!’ But even that failure produces some happiness: bhumaiva sukham, nalpe sukhamasti.
(p.32) The astronomy known to Ptolemy is easily intelligible to us. Man can easily conceive the idea of planetary bodies revolving around the earth. But today, astronomy has gone beyond such narrow and false conceptions to the infinite mysteries of the universe. The realization that this world is but a tiny speck of dust in the vast universe has surely excited and expanded our imagination….
It is then that our closed mind opens up to the possibilities of liberation. He whom our words or mind fail to define is not some void for us. He is Divine Joy. We adore Him who is larger than us. He who elicits our pious adoration is boundless and without any limits….
In truth, not all of us desire God, not everybody is attracted towards the spiritual. Those who lead a religious life solely with an eye on acquiring wealth and happiness, reducing the burden of one’s sins or acquiring religious merit, have turned away from that which is spiritual. George Elliot has called this the phenomenon of ‘otherworldliness’. Those who are caught up in this have little interest in the debate over whether or not God can be endowed with form. They merely go by convenience and by commonplace advice. Such opportunists may be found on both sides of the fence.
But there are also those to whom spirituality comes naturally and who are never distracted by the lures of worldly life. Like the eye of the compass, their mind points to only one direction: to God…. When such a devotee is born within a culture that practices image worship, he uses his extraordinary powers to transform the visual image into that which is purely mental. His mind goes beyond what his eyes see; it is the joy that the object brings that becomes more important. Physical images that still persist are left behind purely as a matter of habit; these do not have to be categorically cast aside. For such a man, the whole world is an allegory, not to speak of the image. When he sees the word ‘tree’ printed on paper, it is not the word that his eyes focus on; in an instant he conjures up the vision of a gigantic (p.33) tree with numerous branches. However, such visions come to only extraordinarily gifted men. Chaitanya2 and Ramprasad Sen3 were two such men. There are also those who actively sever their ties with established conventions of image worship as they find this to be deluding. They then proceed to worship God through their souls and in this world. Kabir and Nanak are good instances of this….
If we continue to construct images of God in keeping with our own temperament or our bodily form, it would be impossible to obtain liberation. What is it that we actually do when we bathe our gods, put him under the mosquito net, and even engage a female actor for his entertainment? In this, we only worship our own nature as God; we immortalize our own greed, our own violence and pettiness as God. It is because of this reason that robbers take the goddess Kali to be their guardian deity in acts of robbery…. All that is despicable, unjust, and unreasonable and not befitting human nature, we take beyond reproach by associating with God….
In this country, some morally revolting acts and ideals that have come to be ascribed to God are but the aberrations of a demented mind. It seems that our author admits this to be one of the reasons for the degeneration of Hindu society and is prepared to advise reform. But what exactly is it that he says?
The method may have been laid down but has anyone ever tried to do this? Has any Hindu scholar succeeded in reconciling the religion of the Puranas to that of the Vedas and constructed a grand ideal that may have been followed by all? Is this task at all possible for everyone?
Historically, the religion of the Puranas is old. Over time, the Hindus have known many changes. The social conventions, faith, or temperament with which the Vedic Aryans entered India were progressively changed after coming into contact with the non-Aryans. Such new experiences have gone into the making of the Puranas. Vedic religious culture is markedly different from that of the Puranas. Hence, if the Vedas are to be considered the authority (pramana), then the Puranas will have to be given up, and, conversely, if the Puranas are taken to be authoritative, then the Vedas must be forsaken. The author of this volume has himself admitted that if the views of one Purana are accepted, this immediately comes into conflict with those of another. In present-day Hindu society, the Vedas are only nominally accepted and the Puranas, in practical, everyday life, and no one seems to raise the question of their mutual incompatibility.
This historical self-expression of Hinduism continues to the present day since the Puranas were composed not only in Sanskrit but also in the vernacular. Apt examples of this are the ballads of the goddess Manasa4 and that of Satyapir.5 The (p.35) various domestic rites and vows (vrata) carried out by Hindu women also fall into this category. Even though the work Annadmangal6 has the puranic Siva and Durga as their main characters, and despite its author, Bharatchandra, a reputed scholar, a good amount of distasteful matter has entered this work. The same may be said of the work Kavikankanchandi.7 The recurring domestic quarrels between Siva and Parvati, Siva’s weakness for Koch women, Durga’s crafting idols out of the dirt produced from her body, and Ganesh’s birth thereof are some tales of this genre. Their source does not lie in the shruti but in popular imagination. The major idea behind all this is to craft God in man’s image. To locate some allegory of a high order in such tales is impossible for the common man and extremely difficult even for the extraordinary.
My conclusion, in brief, is that even those holy men who did not formally give up the worship of images used their extraordinary powers to go beyond what ordinarily meets the eye. Like X-rays discovered by Rontgen, the powers of their minds could penetrate all obstacles and see things in their true light. However, there can be no doubt that the common man remained incapable of this….
In every society, the majority of men adhere to what is conventionally established in society. Among Brahmos many keep mechanically uttering some words or hearing them, and image-worshippers too presume that they have fulfilled their religious duty by carrying out external forms of worship or some private meditation. However, those Brahmos who may be counted as Brahmos, not just socially but also spiritually, are not guilty of (p.36) following a wildly distracted religion such as the author of the present volume would have us think….
(*) Source: ‘Sakar o Nirakar Upasana’ (The Worship of the God with Form and of the Formless God). Rabindranath Tagore’s review of Sakar o Nirakar Tattwa by Jatindramohan Singha. First published in Bharati, Ashwin 1305 BS/September–October 1898. Later included in the collection Adhunik Sahitya (1907); reproduced in RR, vol. 5, pp. 601–6.
(1) Guru Nanak Dev (1469–1539) founded the Sikh religion. His teachings are available in the Guru Granth Sahib and some other texts. The Japji comprises the core of the Granth Sahib. Nanak preached a religion which did not permit image worship or ornate ritualism.
(2) Sri Krishna Chaitanya (1486–1533), originally Vishambar Mishra, was a Brahmin social and religious reformer from district Nadia, West Bengal. He accepted sanyas but strongly declined to accept non-dual Vedantic philosophy. His penchant was for ahetuki bhakti (selfless devotion). He inspired many popular religious cults in Bengal through his radical social and religious message. However, post-Chaitanya, Vaishnavism became more doctrinal under the famed Goswamis of Vrindavan.
(3) A popular sakta poet, singer, and practitioner of sakti-tanra, Ramprasad Sen’s (1720–1781) favoured deity was the goddess Kali. He created the genre of shyamasangit (songs in praise of Kali) and was patronized by Raja Krishna Chandra Roy of Nadia.
(4) Hindu folk goddess of snakes, Manasa is said to protect against snake bites (hence also the name vishahari) and bring fertility and prosperity to her worshippers. Religious literature on her became a part of the genre called Mangal Kavya literature in medieval Bengal.
(5) Also known as Satyanarayan, this is a popular and syncretic rural cult that may have begun around the late seventeenth century. It is associated with both Hindus and Muslims.
(6) A work in praise of the Goddess, written by the eighteenth-century poet Bharatchandra Roy in 1752 at the request of Raja Krishna Chandra Roy.
(7) A sixteenth-century work on the goddess Chandi by Mukundaram Chakrabarti.
7. Unworthy Reverence*
- When the guru and the priest
- in whom all life subsists
- come calling at home,
- should you greet them empty-handed
- they are greatly offended,
- and though there be a smile on their lips
- inwardly they are mighty displeased.
- If, however, you pay them three rupees in cash,
- placing their holy feet on your head
- they will happily grant you boons!
… The verses quoted above clearly suggest how we imagine the guru and the priest to be endowed with some special powers. (p.37) Irrespective of their state of learning, character, or behaviour, it is commonly held that they are the reason behind every auspicious thing that happens to this world. It is also our belief that we stand to gain by showing them respect and devotion and to suffer upon failing to show these. Such beliefs have led us to keep our heads perpetually bowed down before them. In certain communities, such faith has gone so far as to encourage people to violate commonplace rules of domestic morality for the sake of showing reverence to the guru.
This is an argument that we may equally apply to the gods. Not everyone takes gods to bear the ideal character. On the contrary they adhere to the belief that good results are bound to follow from showing reverence to the gods since they are such powerful figures.
We may speak similarly of the Brahmin. A Brahmin, even if he be a miscreant and an abominable character, is still revered as a Brahmin. Here too, the popular belief is that the Brahmin possesses special powers and it is his pleasure or displeasure that explain our good luck or misfortune. In such acts of reverence, there is simply no spiritual bonding between the devotee and the object of devotion. Rather, it is a relationship that seeks to bring pecuniary benefit to one another….
With regard to the reverence shown to the gods, many modern-educated people put forth some intricate arguments. They claim that since God is omniscient and omnipresent, no matter what or whom we worship, such worship is acceptable to God. By thus arguing they wish to prove that such worship cannot fail to produce results.
From the above, it would appear as though the act of worshipping is comparable to paying land revenue! Irrespective of whether you pay the revenue to the king himself or his chosen employee, its ultimate destination is, in each case, the royal treasury. The idea of entering into a pecuniary relationship with God is so deeply entrenched in our minds that we are led to believe (p.38) that by worshipping God, we favour him and that somehow it is God’s duty to return that favour. Since the vital issue here is to ensure that his homage falls into the right hands, the trader in religion is eager to bring this about with the minimum effort and incurring the least expenses. For him, there is simply no need to determine the nature or essence of God or to undertake a rigorous search for Truth. He then proceeds to presume that even if it were only a piece of wood or stone that he worshipped, God would eagerly extend his hand to accept such worship.
From descriptions available in the Puranas and other extant religious literature of the Hindus it would appear as though each god is as eager to grab a greater part of the offerings made as a pack of vultures would be with respect to a carcass. From this it would seem that among our educated there subconsciously exists the belief that it is God who is so eager to appropriate devotion to himself.
However, whether it be a matter of revering God or man, devotion is a virtue that the devotee makes. There is really no harm if he at whom this devotion is directed does not know of this himself. On the other hand, one’s devotion becomes truly worthy if one gets to fully know the object of devotion. If it is my intention to integrate the ideal represented by God or a man with my personal nature, the only path available is that of devotion. If we truly desire him whom we worship then it becomes necessary to establish in our hearts the Truth and the ideal that he represents through the use of devotion….
This is the true glory underlying devotion. Devotional fervour is that chemical process that can dissolve the humble and fully blend it with that which is Grand. Hence, when we worship God, this does not necessarily enhance his power or splendour; it is we who chemically unite with God. The higher our conception or ideal of God, the deeper the joy in the union and greater the expansion of our souls….
(p.39) When our devotion is directed at the unworthy, we sinfully place he who is truly worthy of worship alongside he who is not. This obliterates the distinction between gods and demi-gods. In our country such sinfulness has occurred at several fronts. We have clubbed together immoral conduct and sinfulness. It is considered a sin to touch a ritually defiled person; it is equally a sin to kill him. One may avoid social recrimination by killing a human being, not a cow! One may be pardoned for wrongfully depriving a non-Hindu (yavana) of food but not for accepting food offered by him….
By thus mixing up immoral practices, the imperfect performance of social customs, and violation of moral duty (dharma), we have created dense confusion and deep-seated atheism. In replicating such matters in the domain of devotional life, we have ruined its spiritual content. Hence, our willingness to bow down before the corrupt Brahmin but not the saintly Shudra….
Why has this perversity arisen? This is principally because those human qualities that attain their true worth and glory in human freedom have been kept in chains.
True devotion arises in our ability to surrender before those worthy of using a free intellect and heartfelt devotion. This can never be born of mere habit or blindly following directions given to us….
(*) Source: ‘Ajogya Bhakti’ (Unworthy Reverence), originally called ‘Swadhin Bhakti’, first published in Bharati, Aghrayan 1305 BS/November–December 1898; reproduced in RR, vol. 6, pp. 547–53.
(p.40) 8. The Simple Ways of Religion*
Lighting lamps at some corner of my house requires prior arrangements. For this simple act, I have to depend on several processes and the services of a number of people. At one place, someone will have sown mustard; elsewhere, people will be engaged in extracting oil out of mustard seeds; at a third site, the oil would have to be bought and sold. And even after all that, there still remains the matter of suitably manufacturing the lamps. Such varied and numerous acts finally produce but the pale glow of an oil lamp, and whereas light from lamps does provide me some illumination it also further intensifies the darkness outside….
If someone were to say that there was some closely guarded secret about just how one may receive the first rays of the morning sun, our immediate reaction would be to believe that the secret possibly referred to some artificial source of light, not the light at dawn. This is because natural light descends upon us of its own volition; it is only the light synthetically produced by us and for a special purpose that requires proper handling.
So is the case with religion. This too, like natural light, is free and natural. It represents the act of God’s lovingly gifting Himself to us. Know this: that which is True and Eternal stands very still, surrounding us closely, permeating our very being and consciousness. To experience God all we need to do (p.41) is to seek Him and to sufficiently awaken our hearts. Just as it is impossible for us to manufacture daylight, similarly, we would have never experienced religion, the springs of our eternal life, were this religion to be gained only through some human contrivance.
That which we proceed to specially design ourselves usually turns out to be something cluttered and complex. Our society is complex as is our everyday life and such complexities, when joined to the staggering variety that we experience in our everyday lives, truly mesmerizes us. It is thus that our untutored minds begin to falsely ascribe high scholarship to philosophical teachings that are quite convoluted. Civilizations or cultures whose structures and functions are varied and their methods of organization extensive and complex, can easily overwhelm our weak minds. However, he alone who can present a philosophical discourse lucidly is the truly powerful and gifted philosopher; that civilization is superior which employs simple rules to render its social organization well-ordered and intelligible. However else it may appear from the outside, complexity actually begets signs of weakness and non-fulfilment. Simplicity, on the other hand, is the hallmark of fulfilment. Religion represents the only and the highest ideal of that which attains fulfilment on account of its naturalness and sheer simplicity.
Regrettably, it is religion itself that now stands affected by great social complexities. Having been subjected to endless ritualism, meaningless acts, abstract conceptions, and quaint imagination, it has become so obscure and unnatural that each day one man or another is able to create new and mutually conflicting sects out of this self-begotten fantasy. There now appears to be no end to the hostility, mutual bickering, and suspicion that such mutually conflicting claims have created.
Why has this come about? The only reason for this is that rather than mould our lives in the light of religion, we are often driven to do the very opposite. We begin to believe that like (p.42) several other things in this world which we try to render useful to ourselves, religion too can be made to serve our personal needs.
Religion is indeed our most pressing requirement but it is precisely for this reason that any attempt to modify it in keeping with our recurring worldly needs ruins it altogether. Since religion is capable of transcending the categories of time and space and is immutable, it remains invaluable to human needs. It is because religion is larger than us that it offers itself a safe refuge in an ever-changing world. It may be reasonably argued that each of us may comprehend religion in keeping with our own nature or character. But here lies the problem. Since human nature is diverse, that which is essentially one and indivisible begins to acquire multiple qualities. And where there is multiplicity, there is bound to be complexity and where there is complexity, conflicts will naturally arise.
Fortunately, we can do away with all attempts to ‘understand’ religion. God Himself, as the source of religion, is beyond human conception or comprehension. In truth, what we do manage to conceive is not religion but this material world which carries within it all the vagaries of worldly life. This world, as we know it, is characterized by immense diversity or difference and, hence, it becomes all the more necessary never to lose sight of Truth. At the same time, we must ensure that this Truth is not in some way fragmented or compromised by our everyday experiences.
Let me illustrate my point with the help of an apt example. A house is one of our primary requirements and it is here that we happily reside. By comparison, the open sky may not be as humanly habitable. And yet, it is essential that we allow the open sky to remain the way it is. It is when we cease to acknowledge the difference between the unbounded sky and bounded homes that we turn the latter into a prison and a site comparable to the graveyard. We may be led to believe that by erecting walls in the vast expanse of the sky, we manage to extend our homes. In so doing, however, we only push the open sky further away (p.43) from us. If we were to take the sky as the roof to our house, we lose sight of that which is the source of all light and the eternal playground of all that there is in this cosmos. Thereby, we also convert that which is natural and naturally available to us into something extremely hard to obtain. Everything else in this world we may be able to call our own by constructing synthetic boundaries; religion, on the contrary, is something that we may obtain only upon breaking down these boundaries. We may be possessive about something that belongs to this world, not about something that transcends it altogether….
This simple ideal of religion was once available in India. We may glean such matters through a study of the Upanishads. That which the Upanishads describe is Brahman and which is in itself complete, indivisible, and unaffected by human imagination. The Upanishads declare:
- Satya Gyanamananta Brahman.1
Brahman alone is the Truth or else nothing else in this Universe would be true. He alone is Knowledge and that which is available to us is His Knowledge. Only that which He knows exists; that alone is the Truth. He is Eternal; He is Eternal Truth; He is Eternal Knowledge.
The Upanishads take this world as fully absorbed in the Eternal Truth and Eternal Knowledge of Brahman. The Upanishads have not spoken of some special habitat for Brahman, nor have they indicated some special place of worship or erected a special image of Him. By truly comprehending the nature of Brahman, the Upanishads have thrown out all fanciful imagination. Where else but in India will you find a purer and more ennobling conception of religion?
By thoughtlessly suggesting that the Brahman of the Upanishads is not humanly cognizable, we banish from our lives (p.44) the wisdom inherited from our sages. Just because the limitless sky is not in our control, we cannot call it non-existent or inaccessible. On the contrary, it is the limitless quality of the sky that especially makes it open and accessible. In truth, that which we may conceive using the powers of our mind or that to which we may relate through our sense organs will always pose problems for us. The tiny walls that we construct on this earth may be difficult to scale but the unbounded sky will never pose similar problems. We can devise ways and means through which to overcome the obstacle presented by the wall; by comparison, all thoughts of crossing over the sky are meaningless. It is a fistful of gold that we may find very difficult to procure; the rays of light that illuminate the morning sky do not have a price attached to them. These are not even steeply priced; they are simply priceless.
This is an appropriate analogy through which we may begin to understand the Brahman of the Upanishads. He is the most intimate object as also the farthest removed from us. Our very being is founded upon His Truth; it is in his perpetual Joy (ananda) that we are ever manifest….
It is from this ananda that all life forms are born; it is also this that energizes them and turns them active. It is in this ananda that they rejoice. Of everything that has been said of God it is this that represents the essence of it all and the Truth that is readily understood. To make Brahman a part of our lives we need not resort to imagination, construct something synthetic or fanciful, travel great distances or await a special day and hour. It is when the heart becomes anxious to experience Him that through our very breath begins to flow the Bliss of Brahman and our souls are deeply stirred by His presence. It is then that our mind itself begins to radiate this ananda and revel in this enjoyment. Just as the break of dawn awaits the beholder’s eye, similarly the Bliss of Brahman awaits only the awakening of the human heart.
When seeking to experience Brahman, our efforts should be similar to exposing ourselves to natural light, not trading in (p.45) gold. If not, our efforts will yield only difficulties and ill will. Irrespective of whether we know this or not, the path to truly experiencing Brahman lies through the arousing of the mind and soul within the framework of ties that eternally link us to Brahman.
In India, the mystic syllable (mantra) believed to bring this about is extremely simple. It is the Gayatri Mantra which is short enough to be uttered in a single intake of breath. We open with:
- Om bhurbhuvaha swaha
This particular portion of the Gayatri is called vyahati which means that which is gathered from all around us. Then follows a certain process: we must begin by conceptualising the entire cosmos within us. Thereafter we must believe that we are citizens of the entire universe, not of some particular country. Next, we utter the following:
- tatsaviturvaranyam bhargo devasya dhimahi
We meditate upon God who created this world. We meditate upon the Powers of God as manifest in this world…. But just how are we to relate to this Power that created this world?
- dhiyo yo nah pracodayat
We meditate upon Him using the very mental faculties that He has given us. How do we see sunlight? This is made possible by the rays of light that the sun itself keeps showering on us….
Once I realize that the world outside me and my own powers of cognition are but manifestations of the same Power, matters at once become simple. By connecting my mind to the world and upon realizing the intimate relationship between myself and God who combines in Himself Truth, Consciousness, and Bliss (saccidananda), I liberate myself from all bigotry, all self-seeking, and unhappiness. The Gayatri Mantra links the world outside me to my inner self and the inner self to God who resides in it.
(p.46) This old Vedic method of invoking Brahman is as natural as it is simple. It is devoid of all that is unnatural. None of us is really required to keep searching for either the external world or our inner self; in truth, these are the only things that we truly possess all the time. Once we realize how His tireless energy is constantly keeping alive and energizing ourselves and this world, it becomes possible for us to relate to Him fully and intimately. I doubt if the same can be achieved by employing some synthetic method or fancy imagination….
Foreigners and their favourite Indian followers claim that Hinduism only reveals its incompleteness and inferiority by not paying sufficient attention to the problem of sin. I would rather claim that this, in fact, proves its very superiority. Here, in India, we had gone into the bottom of concepts like sinfulness and religious virtue (pap, punya). But rather than be caught up in endless debates around these questions, we concentrated on yoking ourselves to He who is Eternal Bliss. We were of the view that on experiencing God, all our sins were washed away and spiritual fullness acquired. If a mother were to be constantly reminded about what she must or must not do for her son, such advice may go on interminably. But if, instead, she were asked to simply love her son, all else is taken care of. Nothing more need be said. If religion were to be understood from the sole perspective of how not to sin, it will become horrifying and truly burdensome. If, however, we remain aware of God’s goodwill and love that permeates this world, sin would disappear as quickly as some illusion. In the religious discourse of the West, the question of sin and redemption from sin are questions so heavy and burdensome that they begin to oppress the human mind. This only belittles the Power and Presence of God….
In this country, our religious discourse is simple and founded on certain fundamental values. We say: ‘He who seeks contentment must exercise self-control.’ If a man seeks happiness, he must be prepared to find ways to self-contentment and if he seeks self-contentment, he must exercise self-restraint. The import of this statement is that happiness does not lie outside us. Rather than (p.47) remain buried under a mass of worldly acts or artefacts, it surfaces within the pure simplicity of a mind that knows self-control….
India does not advise us to frantically look about for that which we wish to procure: Indian wisdom has never been on the side of mindless wandering. Rather, it suggests that we acquire that which is both inside and outside us, that which is countless, constant, and wholly natural, for that alone is True and Eternal. India recommends that we experience in our inner selves, He who is always located inside us. He whose presence permeates this world must also be experienced within this world. We, who reside in this world of Immortality, must always properly sight the Immortal. That is India’s perennial prayer….
(*) Source: ‘Dharmer Saral Adarsha’ (The Simple Ideals of Religion). First appeared in the journal Bongodarshan, Magh 1309 BS/January–February 1903 and included in the collection Dharma (1315 BS/1908); reproduced in RR, vol. 7, pp. 460–7.
(1) Taitteriya Upanishad, II.1:2.
9. This World Is Founded on Love*
In the business of our everyday lives, Truth, of which we are generally forgetful, must be especially invoked on the day we organize (p.48) our religious festivals and celebrations. Celebrations must bring us all together in common aspirations and action; these are not something that an individual can organize singlehandedly. In fact, whenever we see things as individuals, we tend to lose sight of this Truth….
It is therefore that I say that celebrations cannot be limited to individuals. It is through the coming together of our minds and hearts that Truth is manifest and to experience this Truth collectively marks the fulfilment of our celebrations. The Truth that we seek to experience within us through meditation is that which pervades the entire Cosmos….
The Truth that resides in us is not born of any empirical experience (vigyan); rather, it represents Divine Bliss (ananda), aesthetic joy, and love. That Truth is fulsome in nature since it satiates not the mind alone but also the heart. He who draws us together, in whose Benign Presence we are all gathered here, is not some lifeless entity. He is Love. It is this Love that is the presiding deity of our celebrations and our minds and hearts the fully sentient site for His worship.
In our daily lives, we are constantly brought face to face with the power of this Love which is also the Truth. If there be anything on this earth that can fully overcome fear, brush aside all potential danger, remain unaffected by loss or ignore something as inevitable as death, it is this Love. This Love can also overcome all selfish considerations. Those of my compatriots, who cannot unite with one another in good days or bad, have lost sight of the highest Truth available to us. Since they do not know renunciation, no gain comes to them; since they cannot give up their lives for others, life becomes an enigma for them. Such people continue to live their lives in constant fear; suffering humiliation at all times, they move about hanging their heads in shame. What is the reason behind this? This is because such people have attained neither Truth nor Love. That prevents them from gaining in strength. Our ability to acknowledge the potency of Truth is (p.49) directly proportional to the degree to which we have experienced Truth ourselves…. Until we are able to sufficiently experience Truth that is manifest in people around us, we shall not be able to dedicate our lives in their service.
It is when Truth appears within us as Love that it reaches fulfilment. Once that happens, we are freed of all doubt, from the agony of death, from selfish expectations, or the fear of personal loss. It is then that our mind is able to locate an unchanging and fulsome Ideal even in this turbulent, ever-changing world….
Satyam gyanamanantam Brahman1 is what the Upanishads say: Brahman represents Truth, Knowledge, and Eternity. But how do these manifest themselves?
Anandarupammritam yadbibhati: Brahman is manifest as Joy (ananda) and Immortality (amrita). That which He reveals is Joy and Immortality, in other words, His Love. This world reveals His eternal Joy and His Love….
In worldly matters, we have occasion to realize that incomplete truth is never fully transparent. On the other hand, we also learn that the more we draw closer to the Truth our love and contentment increases. To the common man, a blade of grass gives no pleasure; for him it is a petty object of which he knows or cares about only a little. For the botanist, however, the same can be quite meaningful. He is aware of the fact that in the evolution of plant life, the place occupied by grass has not been insignificant. He who can look at the blade of grass with a spiritual vision finds ample happiness in it…. Similarly, so long as my knowledge and understanding of man is small and partial, my love for him too remains incomplete. I find my fullest contentment in the man for whom I am even willing to give up my own life. However, this is looking at love purely from my own perspective. My personal interests are so dear to me that I fail to find love in serving others. For the Buddha, however, life was in itself so important and (p.50) meaningful that he gave up his kingdom only so that he may serve others.
It is therefore that I say that Truth is born of Joy and Joy, of Truth: anandamdhyeba khalimani bhutani jayanti2—whatever is born, is born of ananda. Hence, until this world is revealed to us as pure Joy and Love, it is not available to us as the Fullest Truth (purna satyam). The Bliss and Love that we experience in this world, we experience as the manifestation of Truth. It is never enough to say that the world simply exists: the Truth is that it is the Abode of Bliss.
How does this Divine Bliss manifest itself? It manifests itself in amplitude, variety, and beauty. In this manifestation we find no paucity, no miserliness, or an attempt to go by pure need or functionality. Look at the fountain of light that is descending from millions and millions of stars in the sky and whatever this light touches comes alive in exciting colour and form. This is the sheer amplitude of ananda. It is immeasurable; its presence far exceeds our requirements….
Today we celebrate Beauty; the gift of Beauty too exceeds our requirements. This is the manifestation of unbounded delight and contentment, again far in excess of what we need. This is the language of Love. Even if a flower was not beautiful in appearance, it would still be cognizable to our senses. The fact that it is also beautiful must be taken as an additional gift. This unbounded generosity expects generosity in return and that which is so returned is love….
(*) Source: ‘Utsav’ (Festival). First appeared in Bongodarshan, Magh 1312 BS/January–February 1906 and later included in the collection Dharma, 1315 BS/1908; reproduced in RR, vol. 7, pp. 449–52.
(1) Taitteriya Upanishad, II.1:2.
(2) Taitteriya Upanishad, III:6:1.
(p.51) 10. The Value of Suffering*
… The Upanishads say that all that is manifest in this world reveals Divine Joy. It is some Perennial Desire that has expressed itself in a myriad of forms. The Upanishads have further divided this revelation into three aspects. One of these has to do with this world, the second with human society, and the third with the human soul. These represent respectively, that which is Serene or Tranquil (shanta), the Good and the Auspicious (shivam), and the One without a second (advaitam).
If the shanta were to remain self-contained, He would be unable to reveal Himself. There is before us this dynamic world, constantly in movement and even amidst this fast movement, He reveals His firmness and serenity through fixed and unchanging laws. It is because He can subsume all this movement within Himself that he remains shanta. Similarly, if shivam too were to remain fixed in Himself, we cannot call Him shivam. In this world, there is no end to work and to our suffering born of such work but it is within all that suffering that He uses his Goodness and Auspiciousness to reveal Himself. It is because this Goodness goes beyond all pain and suffering that it is good and auspicious; it is dharma. Again, if He who was One without a second kept to Himself, how would Oneness be revealed to the world? In worldly life, our minds are constantly affected by immense differentiation and complexities. Even so, He reveals His Oneness through love. (p.52) If this love had not forged the unity between souls, how would the One have revealed Himself?
The world is in a state of flux because it is imperfect; human society too has had to constantly engage itself in work because it is imperfect. Again, it is because our self-knowledge is incomplete that we tend to see our soul to be different from everything else surrounding it. All the same, it is within this frenzied activity that there lies tranquillity; it is within our failures that there is success and it is within discord that there is love.
We must take care to remember that the opposite of completeness is void, not incompleteness. In truth, incompleteness is never opposed to completeness; it is simply a partial manifestation. Imagine a song being sung. Now until the time that the lines of a song have not completed a full circle and returned to the starting point, it cannot be called a complete song. However, this is not the opposite of song either because each of its incomplete parts resonate the musical appeal of the entire song.
How else may we savour aesthetic joy (rasa)? Raso vai swah1 says the Upanishads— He alone manifests rasa. It is because He imparts fullness to that which is not full that He is rasa. It is in Him that rasa continues to fill up. He gives both form and quality to rasa. It is thus that the world revelation is so filled with Divine Joy…. It is also on that account that this imperfect world is not some void or illusion. It is hence that the beauty underlying this world, the messages carried in its many sounds and smells, keeps us deeply absorbed in some mysterious feeling. It is thus that the sky does not merely surround us; it also expands our hearts. Again it is not as though light simply enables us to view things; it also awakens our inner self. All that is around us does not simply exist; it enhances our consciousness and embellishes our souls with Truth….
Just as the imperfection of the world is not opposed to perfection, suffering too that accompanies imperfection is not opposed to happiness. In other words, suffering, even when acute, is actually (p.53) not suffering but a state of happiness. It is a manifestation of He who is Pure Joy and Immortality….
Is this at all a matter of debate? Does this wisdom not come from our experience? It is because every man experiences this deep inside his heart that he chooses a life of suffering, not comfort. In human history, the most venerable figures have embodied suffering; they were not slaves to the Goddess of Fortune, brought up in a life of ease and comfort. Our own weaknesses should not lead us to devalue the importance of suffering. Through this suffering alone we shall get to experience happiness even better and to acknowledge He who is Benign and the Truth.
We must remember that the glory of imperfection lies in the suffering that it induces; that indeed is its only asset. Humanity itself derives its meaning from the fact that whatever Truth man obtains he obtains through suffering. He gets the objects of his desire not by seeking but by the willingness to endure suffering. All other assets belong to God; it is suffering that exclusively belongs to man. It is through the splendour of suffering that man unites with God, keeping his pride and dignity intact….
If we are required to make a gift to God what is it that we can gift? There can be no satisfaction in gifting Him what only belongs to Him: it is only suffering, man’s sole possession that can be surrendered before Him. This suffering He takes away by gifting Himself to us and granting happiness. If there wasn’t this suffering to take away from man where else would He place his precious gifts? Does not the value of wealth increase in giving it away? Happiness too finds fulfilment not in self-containment but by giving itself away. It is a matter of pride for us that we contribute to this fulfilment through the suffering that we endure. O Lord, this is the point at which You and I meet, only so that our respective possessions are happily joined together. It is at this point that you cease to be unapproachable; it is now that you descend to the world of men. Having so descended from your splendid throne down to this everyday world, you bring into (p.54) effect your Divine Play (leela), only so that we may find some meaning in our lives….
We often try to wish away the burden of suffering by suggesting to ourselves that we could treat happiness and unhappiness at par. Now it may not be impossible for someone to achieve this mental state but matters like happiness and unhappiness are not exclusive to a few people; they affect all others in the world. The world as a whole does not overcome suffering even if some of us do. Hence, we should understand it as a value not just in respect of ourselves but on that vast stage of history where its relentless power is affecting numerous races, states, and communities….
The power or value created by man’s suffering is not to be diminished in any way. We shall have to accept it with a brave heart and with our heads held high. We shall use that power not to annihilate ourselves but to strengthen ourselves even more. It would be slighting this Power if we were not to use it to uplift ourselves. It is through this Power that we may truly discover the glory of our souls. Suffering is the only value that has the power to procure everything. Whatever man has created he has created through suffering. That which has not been thus created does not endure.
It is through renunciation—the act of surrendering, penance, and suffering—that we realize our soul in its deepest sense, not through a life of comfort and happiness. Through no other means do we get to know our strengths better than through these experiences. The less we know our own strength, the less we are able to perceive the glory of our souls and shallower become our happiness. The poet of the Ramayana has established the glory of Rama, Sita, Laxmana, and Bharata upon their own sufferings. The joy and the purity we find in the poetic excellence of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is held together by this power of suffering. In the entire history of mankind, all that is courageous and noble is seated upon the power of suffering. The value of motherly suffering lies in her suffering itself as does that of wifely chastity, virility, and all other righteous acts….
(p.55) Christian scriptures say that God, when born as man, willingly took upon himself the burden of the sins that mankind had committed and a crown of thorns upon his head, representing his suffering. Suffering alone leads to liberation….
In our country, men belonging to certain religious communities have envisioned God as Mother but in some terrible and forbidding images. Nowhere have they tried to soften or tone down this terrible vision and make the image look more agreeable and pleasant. They have understood God as Mother2 through frightening imageries of destruction. In their spiritual life, they have sought to experience even within this frightening form, the blissful union of Sakti with Siva. Only those who are weak in their devotion have chosen to associate God exclusively with comfort, happiness, and abundance. Such men believe that wealth and worldly fame comes through the grace of God and that worldly success is but God’s gift to man in return for his good deeds. The kindness and compassion of God they tend to understand in extremely soft and emotional terms. Such feeble-hearted votaries of success and happiness even begin to take God’s kindness as tacitly approving their own greed, infatuation, and cowardice. In so doing, they arrive only at a narrow and fragmentary view of God.
O Terrible! Where are we to put your Kindness and Bliss? Are these to be placed only where there is happiness in plenitude or where life is free of any fear or danger? Shall we begin to understand death or fear only by detaching these from you? That cannot be so. O Father! You are suffering, You are danger too. O Mother, You are death, You are fear too….
O Almighty! I seek only such powers from you that will disallow me to take your Kindness for something that only perpetuates (p.56) my weaknesses and my insignificance; let me not deceive myself by accepting you only in part.
That Power which is overwhelmingly terrifying as sakti turns Beautiful and Benign at the touch of shanta (the serene). And He who is shanta is also sivam (auspicious). The shanta drives all the dynamism that there is in this world towards some benign conclusion…. All that happens in our lives—births, deaths, happiness and misery, gain and loss—are present in Him. But for Him, who could have carried this burden even for a moment? Today I see Nature—the sun, stars, planets, sky, earth, and water—all eager to give me a helping hand. Even though I do not understand the mystery inherent in a single grain of sand, I remain seated on this vast stage of the world, happily playing away like a child in his own home, unmindful of what goes on around me. Just as I belong to everybody, everybody belongs to me. How did this come about? He who represents the only answer to this question reveals Himself in all that goes on; He protects us. He is sivam, He is Auspicious. In order to truly experience His Auspicious nature, we must be prepared to discard all that which is opposed to it. In short, we have to engage ourselves in good work. There can be no experience in apathy and inaction. It is only by churning the ocean of works that one may secure Immortality and Auspiciousness. We will reach the mansion of Goodness only by experiencing the titanic struggle between the good and the bad, between gods and demons, and by overcoming the many obstacles that come our way in our earthly lives. When by virtue of good works this heart will go beyond all sense of gain or loss, when we shall locate the Benign within our hearts, it shall be revealed to us even amidst all worldly turbulence that He is indeed with us. And then, even the most fearsome signs will fail to frighten us. Even in moments of darkness and utter despondency, when our strength has left us, we will feel His presence who is sivam.
- He is non-dual; He is one without a second; He is One.
(p.57) He who is my relative cannot make me weary, he who is my friend will not obstruct my mind in any way. Only he who is unrelated to me will cause me some pain through his unfriendliness and opposition. The joy that we derive upon uniting with others indicates the state of oneness. Behind all our aspirations, knowledge, or ignorance lie the signs of this oneness. Pure Joy lies only in this oneness….
(*) Source: ‘Dukkha’ (Suffering). Address delivered in 1314 BS/1907 and published in Bongodarshan, Phalgun 1314 BS/February–March 1908; reproduced in RR, vol. 7, pp. 490–7.
(1) Taitteriya Upanishad, II:7:2.
(2) A concept distinctive to Saktas or worshippers of Sakti. Ramprasad Sen and Ramakrishna Parmahamsa may be included under this category. Perhaps under the influence of Ramakrishna, the Brahmo Keshab Chandra Sen too took to this concept minus of course the image worship.
11. Religious Education and the Idea of an Ashram*
In Christian countries, there now rages a fierce debate on how children are to be introduced to religious education from an early age. Apparently, such a debate is beginning to arise in this country too, and for similar reasons. My friends have invited me to speak on how such education may be carried out within the Brahmo Samaj.
(p.58) In India, there is a general feeling that religion is a desirable thing but hard to experience in our lives. Hence, it is something that we keep seeking and hope to procure cheaply but only after we have met all our other needs. There are many low-priced things in the world that may be obtained with a minimum effort. However, if someone were to ask just how a precious thing could be obtained without paying for it, it must be assumed that that person was contemplating some crime! …
With respect to religious education it is important that we first carefully ascertain what kind of advice we are seeking. The Gita has ruled that what we finally achieve is determined by the nature of our thought. What, then, is our thought? If we think that we ought not to meddle too much with what already exists and yet fully achieve our objectives, then we shall have to seek the services of such men who claim to be able to turn brass into gold….
Whenever in society the value or understanding of religion heightens, people are willing to sacrifice much in the name of religion…. Under the circumstances, many happily accept the difficult challenges posed by religious life and only when the scope of religion is wide does religious education become easy and natural. On the contrary, when it is only a small part of our everyday life, it becomes difficult to resolve just how such education is to be effectively carried out.
The Brahmo Samaj too has been a witness to such developments as have affected modern societies across the world. Here too our will and intelligence has tended to drive us more towards the world that lies outside us, neglecting what lies inside…. We are citizens of a new age and in our lives there is indeed little that is natural. We have amassed a great number of objects of sensual pleasure and of that we remain proud. For many of us, religion is only a part of society; in fact I have known such people who take religious feeling to be a part of mental infirmity that is to be truly ignored….
There was a time when the task of educating children was everywhere in the hands of religious preachers. There was then (p.59) instability in our political system, which disallowed long periods of peace. Hence, there developed in society a special class of people whose only social obligation was to put their minds to religion and scriptures. Society, in turn, took care of them, and over time, this class of people became social instructors. At that time, education was limited in scope, students few in number, and teachers too drawn from a small social circle. Under such circumstances, problems related to education were not particularly difficult or complex. This allowed lay education and the religious to be joined together.
Now conditions have perceptibly changed. With improvements in our political organization, the desire to be educated has increased among common people. So have the opportunities for obtaining education. That apart, there have arisen new branches of learning with the result that lay education could hardly be compared to that offered by our religious preachers. However, old habits die hard and, therefore, lay education continued to be closely bound with religious instruction for a long time. But all that is changing. In entire Europe, there is now a great movement for separating the two. This is by no means natural but for certain reasons separation has become inevitable.
The major reason for this is that, over time, European clergymen, who once nurtured education, became the greatest impediments on the road to educational progress. The more learning diversified and expanded its frontiers, the more it outgrew conventional religion. Under the circumstances, there could but be only two choices: either contemporary religion was to admit its errors and limitations or else dissenting forms of knowledge had to be allowed to go their own ways. It now appears impossible to keep the two united any more. But here is the difficulty. If the scriptures were to admit their incompleteness or error, they would have at once lost all power and influence. It had been the habit with men of religion to propagate the idea that their word was infallible since it was based on Revelation and the willing (p.60) assent of an omniscient God. The fact of the matter now is that the new learning that derived its strength and appeal from close observation of the world and of nature can no longer accept the idea of a revealed Truth.
At first, the men of religion sought to win over their opponents by all kinds of unjust acts: people were prosecuted, burnt alive, and ostracized but such methods failed to bring lasting success. Thereafter, they employed sophisticated arguments to prove that conclusions of religion were no different from those of science. Currently, however, the two have become so hard to reconcile that neither state nor society in Europe has been able to keep religious faith under their control. Hence, almost everywhere in the West, lay education is being increasingly detached from religious instruction. It is for this reason that people cannot come to a conclusion regarding whether or not children should be brought up without any exposure to religion.
In our country, this problem has turned serious in recent times since the coming of modern education has seriously weakened our traditional religious faith. In India, matters like the theory of creation, history, geography, and other subjects have traditionally been a part of the religious culture as available in the Puranas. These are so closely tied to mythical tales concerning gods and goddesses that it is extremely difficult to separate the two. Regrettably, it is not only such tales that are hard to reconcile with present-day thought and experience but also social customs as ordained in our scriptures. We are no longer prepared to go by the older ideal but lack a new ideal that can take its place.
This is precisely the nature of the problem that the Brahmo Samaj now faces. With what shall we attract the minds of our children? How shall we expand their intellectual horizons and religious consciousness? It is not enough to have rain, there must also be adequate arrangement to store rainwater for its future use. Our thoughts too are like water; unless contained from all sides, they tend to flow out unproductively. The Brahmo Samaj also lacks the method by which a child’s mind may be adequately (p.61) trained, an ideal that will hold things together. In order to do away with the indeterminate quality in our present religious life and to give it a more stable basis, some people have now tried to give the religion of the Brahmos a philosophical orientation. Some people are now trying to assess how much of this philosophy is non-dual in character, how far dual or even a combination of both. They are keen to assess how much of it has been influenced by Acharya Sankara, Kant, Hegel,1 and Green,2 respectively. In so doing, their intention is to project Brahmoism as a readily identifiable philosophical view, complete in every respect. I have been aware of some non-Brahmos, disrespectful as they are of the Brahmo Samaj, to take Brahmoism as a philosophy, not religion. Unfortunately, our Brahmo detractors are only too willing to accept this unreasonable view with some pride and joy.
On our part we can justly claim that like other universal religions, Brahmoism too has developed out of the devotional outpourings of the human heart. It is not something compiled by some text book committee attached to some religious seminary and randomly sewn together as a book by a bookbinder. That which is based on life will always be on the move. A stone cannot change its form but the same cannot be said of a seed. The seed contains within it a mystery that is larger than itself. If this unknown mystery is mistakenly taken to be uncertainty, one destroys all potentialities of life within it. Whatever one might say, Brahmoism is not a fixed or well-organized philosophy…. It is not like some pond or tank enclosed by masonry; it is a river that will keep flowing with time, quenching the spiritual thirst of successive ages. Many new Hegels or Greens may construct (p.62) stone embankments on its course but the river will keep flowing unabated….
If this be the case, what defines the religion of the Brahmos? There are a few general things that it includes: the hunger for the Infinite and the intense desire to revel in its Joy and Beauty. We have no quarrels with the way the Infinite is understood or interpreted. This is but natural and differences of understanding will persist forever. There is no way by which we can get to the bottom of this mystery. The truth, nonetheless, is that from Rammohun to Keshab Chandra, we have witnessed in every major religious figure, this joy born of the quest for the Infinite….
However, to perceive the Brahmo Samaj through the lives of only a few would amount to belittling it. Behind the creation of the Brahmo Samaj we see man’s attempt to remove his most deep-rooted failings and deficiencies. Brahmoism was meant to awaken man’s entire consciousness through the larger and all-pervading consciousness of Brahman. It was, therefore, that Rammohun’s field of activity was entire humanity, not his country alone. His mind was drawn to all directions—to politics, society, and religion. The inspiration behind this was not simply the abundant scope for work but the persistent quest for Brahman. It was because he perceived man through such eyes that he saw him in all grandeur and truth. It was thus that his vision went beyond the boundaries of insularity and narrow conventions. Rammohun desired not the awakening of Indian mind alone but in every such community where men had succeeded in enlarging his sphere of freedom.
Since the inception of the Brahmo Samaj, it is this Truth that we have consistently upheld. If there be an attempt to replace its openness with some special scripture, a special house of worship, a special philosophy, or modes of worship, this is bound to go against the very spirit of Brahmoism….
Before we determine what kind of religious education we ought to impart to our children it is important to determine what (p.63) exactly we understand by religion itself. It must be admitted at once that for us religious education does not mean committing a few things to memory or practising certain prescribed customs. We must also not be distracted by the thought that in other religions such matters are far simpler to handle. After all, of what use is it to replace Truth by Truth? Dust is easier to obtain than gold and, hence, is it dust that we should procure? On the whole, it has to be admitted that just as good health has to do with the entire human body, religion too wholly occupies a man’s nature and being.
Our spiritual practitioners of old have themselves admitted that spirituality is not a matter of mere learning or pedantry. However, none among them has been able to tell us just how they have reached their spiritual goal. They have been heard to proclaim ‘I have known! I have found!’ Such men have also told us that he who has known Brahman has attained immortality. But just how they have known Him is a mystery so esoteric that it eludes the spiritual practitioner himself. It is not an experience that he can cogently describe or narrate. Alas, if only they had been able to unravel this mystery, there might have been no room for debate on the subject of religious education. When asked just how God-consciousness was to be fully awakened in man, none of our spiritual masters have chosen to give us any specific religious instruction. Some have asked us to control our passions, to purify our minds and souls, while others have suggested certain external rites: organizing ritual sacrifices, meditating on certain images, or using of stimulants to reach a certain mental state. When attracted to the latter group in particular, it becomes difficult to resist falsehood and giving free rein to our imagination. However, people who give us such advice are also religious men. It is not as though they wish to deliberately mislead us but there is, nonetheless, every possibility that they would have erred in the advice they offered us. To realize an objective is one thing, to offer a rational explanation for how this came about is quite another….
(p.64) In the Brahmo Samaj we do not seek a new house of worship or a set of unique rites and customs; we simply want an ashram where man’s inner quest may be joined to the enchanting beauty of the natural world. It is this joining of the human soul and nature that represents our house of worship, and selfless, public work the worship itself. It is at such a site that religious education is best carried out. I have earlier stated how religious education has to be imparted in keeping with the natural inclinations of our heart; the use of any contrivances or artificial methods will only cause aberrations and pose problems in spiritual life.
I suspect that some people who are given to cut and dry judgements will argue that what we suggest is not in keeping with the spirit of our times. For them, the idea of an ashram is reminiscent of medieval monasteries which only dissipated religious life and crippled humanity.
It would indeed be foolish to emulate that which belonged to a bygone era and has now outlived its usefulness. No matter how attractive the bows used by the barbarians look, they are of no use to present-day warriors. However, even though the weapons of the past are of no use, there still remains in human society the urge to go to war. And as long as that survives, there will remain a broad similarity between wars and war-like instincts manifest across time. Likewise, if the religious feelings in man which assumed a certain form in the past are revived today, it is quite possible that the present will follow in the footsteps of the past without necessarily emulating it. The present will have a certain distinctiveness befitting the present times but also a common spiritual quest since in every age man has sought Truth….
I have not been arguing for the sake of argument. It is well known to you all that my revered father, Maharshi Debendranath, established an ashram in Bolpur3 at the very spot where he once (p.65) began his active spiritual life. He was not only attached to this ashram but also respectful. Even though that spot remained barren and uninhabited for a long time, he never doubted the fact that the idea of running an ashram had great meaning and relevance … and one day, when a proposal was placed before him to open a school on the same premises, he happily consented. He felt as though the ashram had all along been awaiting that school. It was also his understanding that the primary responsibility for suitably training the minds of the children belonged to the ashram….
It has been observed that as long as we believed that it was up to us to educate and help the children, we made little progress in the matter. On the other hand, when it dawned on us that the ashram was the training ground for all, that our own spiritual training was no less necessary than that of the boys, that teachers and students alike had been placed under the tutelage of the Great Teacher, that things began to change for the better…. Looking at this experience of ours we would have to say that religious education cannot be effectively imparted when one party unilaterally assumes the role of the teacher and takes another to be the student. In the domain of religion, the acts of giving and taking are but identical; they occur simultaneously. Thus, there can be no schools for religious education, only ashrams.
In this country, there was a time when hermitages were used for such purposes. There, lay education and the religious were creatively joined together. There, the acts of giving and taking were carried out with ease and it was thus that the hermitage, assuming the functions of the heart, refined and fortified our society…. Buddhist monasteries too carried out similar work.
Some of you may be led to think that since 11 years of my life have gone into the making of this ashram, revealing its story is only one way of self-approbation. Even at the risk of being so criticized, I must ultimately stand witness for Truth. Most respectfully, yet with conviction in my heart, I must state that religion, which shuns the use of imageries and irrational customs and finds them posing some danger to human character and (p.66) intelligence, can never fully win over the human mind through occasional lectures or sermons. To carry that religion to its fruition, we will need an ashram where the unity of nature and the human mind is unhindered, where man remains in close harmony with all other forms of life, when a life of self-seeking indulgence ceases to hold any attraction for man, and where spiritual life, rather than be lost in meditative contemplation, finds expression in renunciation and noble work….
(*) Source: ‘Dharmashiksha’ (Religious Education), first published in Tattwabodhini Patrika, Magh, 1318 BS/January–February 1912 and later included in the collection Sanchay; reproduced in RR, vol. 9, pp. 544–6.
(1) The German philosopher and major figure in German Idealism, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) revolutionized European philosophy, whose dialectical methodology was a major influence on Karl Marx.
(2) Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882) was an English philosopher, politician, and reformer, who made an important contribution to the British Idealist movement.
(3) Land for this site was acquired in 1863 and the ashram set up on 19 October 1888. In 1892, the Brahmo Mandir was constructed. Rabindranath started his brahmacharya ashram in the year 1901.
12. Do Hindus Remain Hindus upon Accepting the Brahmo Faith?*
In the essay ‘Atmaparichay’, I had argued that Hindu-Brahmos were right to call themselves Hindus. In other words, a Hindu remained a Hindu even after formally accepting the Brahmo faith. To this, the esteemed editor of the journal Tattwakaumudi1 has (p.67) responded by alleging that since the members of the Adi Brahmo Samaj (to which I belong) were socially far behind the progressive Brahmos (of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj), they were not competent to judge this question. Further, it has been claimed that ‘progressive’ Brahmos had long outgrown the narrow confines of Hinduism (Hindutva).2
I shall refrain myself from commenting on the extent of ‘progress’ achieved by various wings of the Brahmo Samaj; that is really not the subject under discussion. All the same, it would be my duty to state that what is unjust or improper for Hindu society as a whole has to be so for Brahmos too.
Possibly, we at the Adi Brahmo Samaj, suffer from many superstitions and it may be reasonably expected that as we increasingly grow aware of these, we shall also try to free ourselves from their hold. However, it was never our belief that the right to determine the truth was exclusive to only certain members of the Brahmo community. I am a member of the Adi Brahmo Samaj and yet God has not taken away my powers of rational thought and analysis. And even though our ‘progressive’ editor is keen to deny me the right to judge who is a Hindu and who is not, He, from whom we have all received our human qualities, has never questioned me in this regard.
Are those who oppose the wearing of sacred thread (upavita) as a mark of caste differentiation prepared to accept the fact that the invisible thread is often more firmly in place than that which is visible? The editor of the Tattwakaumudi does not wear one himself but by so proudly appropriating the label ‘progressive’ for himself and for other members of his community, has he not exhibited a sense of aristocratic disdain and pride of race?
Our editor has claimed that the sheer momentum of ‘progress’ has taken the ‘progressive’ Brahmos beyond the boundaries of (p.68) Hinduism. But boundaries that are in no way synthetic or humanly constructed cannot be so easily crossed. For instance, I was born with a certain physical frame and that in turn has given me some distinctiveness. Now if this distinctiveness be considered an offence and opposed to my progress as a social being, then all my efforts to integrate myself with this world will be in vain….
Does this mean that the concept of the ‘public’ is only an illusion? This would be possible only if the Universal was tantamount to taking away all marks of individual distinctiveness. This would amount to saying that we accept brotherhood without accepting the brother or we arrive at an abstract notion of the public without taking into account the special features of the people that make up this public. Only he who does not possess a head need not worry about a headache! It is because each of us is so distinctive in our own ways that we aim to arrive at some notion of the universal and the public; otherwise there would be no use for it. Acknowledging uniqueness in individuals cannot be an act of prejudice and, hence, the claim that going beyond the ‘narrow’ confines of Hinduism constitutes progress is but an empty boast.
Let us illustrate this with the help of an example. All communities believe in the existence of ghosts, albeit in varying degrees. Now, if I were to claim that I have somehow overcome this belief, would it imply that I have ceased to be human?
Likewise, if a Hindu is able to overcome superstitions or prejudices present in his society, one might reasonably call him a Hindu free of superstitions, not un-Hindu. It cannot be claimed that superstitions alone define the Hindu. We must be prepared to admit that blind faith and superstitions prevail in every society but by God’s grace they are never eternally present. This allows for progress and no matter how badly affected the members of the Adi Brahmo Samaj are, or for that matter some other community, they too can progress since they are human….
I imagine that by now there would be readers who have lost patience and cannot hold back their anger anymore. Such men (p.69) would want to believe that those whom I call Hindus would also be image worshippers and follow the rules of caste. They would happily throw this allegation at me since I do not belong to either the Sadharan or Nababidhan factions of the Brahmo Samaj or because my father, allegedly, had said or done a few wrong things….
Now I cannot forsake my father as a father even if these allegations were true. If, in a moment of temporary insanity, such a thought were at all to cross my mind, it would not be in my power to carry this out. That I am my father’s son is an identity that God Himself has determined. However limiting this is taken to be, it remains possible for me to attain progress some day. It is because such possibilities were located in Hindu society too that Hindus have been able to advance through time and will continue to do so. It is because God willed it that way that we witnessed the life and work of Rammohun Roy. Is this not sufficient cause for us to restore our faith in God and continue to have faith in his Dispensation? I am willing to concede that Hindu society harbours error, superstition, and blind faith but importantly enough, it also has on its side, Truth, goodness, and Brahman Itself….
I have previously asserted that Brahmo dharma (Brahmoism) is a byproduct of the history of the Hindus. In other words, no matter how universalistic its character is, it cannot deny Divine Laws which have willed it that way. Hence, there ought not to be any sense of shame or regret about historical ties that determined the birth of Brahmoism at a particular time and place. We would have to acknowledge this if at all we are to respect history, and hence it would only be natural for us to grant that there are certain qualities in the Hindu and in his historical circumstances that has allowed Brahmo dharma to express itself in its own particular way.
The play of several forces may explain this occurrence. Perhaps the challenges thrown out by the West is one of these. It might be true that it was an earthquake that woke me up at midnight (p.70) but it was still me that was awakened, not the earthquake itself. It may well be true that the Koran, Purana, the Bible, Buddhist scriptures, and scriptures from the other religious traditions that are there in this world have all contributed to the making of Brahmo dharma, and yet this unique creation was made possible only within the history of the Hindus. Therefore, it is to the Hindus that it must belong….
There are debates about the origin of practically every religion. Some say that Christianity is indebted to Buddhism; others claim that Vaishnavism is derived from Christianity. There are numerous other debates of this kind and perhaps at some point of time the historian will establish that Brahmo dharma too has been put together by stealing ideas or practices from various world religions. However, such debates notwithstanding, Christianity remains Christianity and Vaishnavism remains Vaishnavism. Even allowing for the possibility that Christianity had appropriated Buddhism for its purposes and Vaishnavaism had appropriated Christianity, this has still not resulted in these religions turning extinct or in their glory being severely curtailed. The vitality of life consists of making an outsider one of our own; on the other hand, to willingly lose our identity in something outside us is the sign of death. Hence, regardless of how I judge the matter, and even allowing for a host of influences upon Brahmoism, Indian, and non-Indian, this religion remains the property of the Hindus….
It is a matter of surprise that the editor of the Tattwakaumudi, even when tacitly agreeing with me, has chosen to be critical of my essay.3 At one place he has clearly stated, ‘It just cannot be that Brahmoism will remain confined to Hindu society or to people who are Hindus by birth. It should be possible for people all over this world to accept this liberal religion.’ I have never (p.71) attempted to shut the doors of Brahmoism to keep out people from other countries or cultures nor have I claimed that it will remain confined to the Hindus. All that I have tried to argue is that the Hindu too can be a Brahmo.
The editor of the Tattwakaumudi asks if the Jews, Muslims, and Europeans, who have sought the refuge of the Brahmo Samaj, will agree to call themselves Hindus.4 Now an identity can be of several kinds: there are those communities that are narrowly constituted and those that are not. If I introduce myself as a Brahmo, it does not become incumbent upon me to also call myself a Hindu. An Englishman can stay connected to Hindu society only to the extent of being a Brahmo and that would not be a matter of embarrassment for him. Even as Hindus we take delight in English literature, cure our ailments through the application of Western medical knowledge, and freely use the railways and telegraph. When doing so we do not pause to think whether or not such things have been inherited from our forefathers. In this manner, we find that human achievement belonging to a certain people or community becomes the common property of mankind.
Why should it be difficult for the Englishman, Jew, or Muslim to accept Brahmo dharma as a part of Hindu society when the German scholar (Paul) Deussen openly accepts Vedanta even with the knowledge that it is Indian in origin? Isn’t this just the way people embrace Truth? Are the works of Plato taboo outside the frontiers of Greece? Has no Muslim scholar appropriated the philosophy of Aristotle, and upon doing thus were his personal qualities somehow diminished? In truth, it is because that Brahmo dharma has developed by assimilating the fine mental qualities of the Hindu that it has become such an object of attraction for the non-Hindu. If this were not so, it would have remained useless to the modern world, a mere reiteration perhaps of older wisdom. (p.72) In that event, it could not have so clearly reflected some special Divine Dispensation.
The editor of the Tattwakaumudi has repeatedly proclaimed and clearly in an agitated frame of mind that for him, Christ, Theodore Parker,5 Martin Luther,6 Martineau are all religious teachers (gurus).7 He might as well have extended this list by a long margin. What he essentially means to say is that regardless of where a religious teacher has discovered or propagated some Truth, he becomes a teacher of that Truth for all mankind. It is precisely for this reason that we do not hesitate to accept Truth from others. But should this be done only selectively? I am willing to accept the Truth in Christianity and Islam but must I, for that reason, disown my own Truth fearing that a Christian may otherwise decline to accept it?
Our editor has stated that so long as we do not know the distinctive qualities of Hinduism, calling ourselves Hindus would be as bad as signing on a blank cheque!8 In truth, such blank spaces may exist in respect of all religious communities. Would it be correct to say that an Englishman has acquired the right to call himself an Englishman because he has a settled opinion on every conceivable issue? …
(p.73) We have earlier tried to argue that the term Hindu does not indicate a particular religion or religious opinion. But should that lead us to believe that there is really no category called Hindu? … As with other peoples, the Hindus too have had no fixed or immutable religious principle or custom that defines them. There can be no such principle and it is preferable that it stays that way. Those who pride themselves on some unifying principle in religious life are only indulging in some imagined pride. On the other hand, those who disdainfully reject such a principle are also guilty of unreasonableness.
Even within the highly differentiated society of the Hindus, there has been at work an overwhelming Power that has united the non-Aryan and the Aryan, assimilated unto itself the ancient colonies of the Sakas, Hunas, and the Greeks. That Power has inspired us to grasp the grand unity underlying diverse religious faiths and practices. Its field of operation is huge and hence the great difficulties placed on its way. But such obstacles cannot be there for all time: it is because that Power desires to get at the grandest Truth that it has consistently struggled against error and illusion…. If today the historical lessons made available to the Hindu suggest that an underlying sense of unity has indeed been achieved, should we, like ungrateful people, suggest that those who have struggled hard to attain that unity should not be suitably rewarded? For long, it is the Hindu society that has carried the burden of history and now would it be fair to overlook this completely in the name of universalism? Would it be fair to proclaim that the doors of the Brahmo Samaj have been held open for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and that this has been made possible only by a handful of people, not Hindu society as a whole? …
I am afraid that this is an ideal that looks like a headless corpse. It has no distinct quality for itself and yet calls the world its own. This is an ideal that ignores the ground under its feet but seeks to meet the world hanging from some empty space. Even (p.74) in embracing the world, it hesitates to use its own hands, lest its self-proclaimed universalism is compromised in some way….
(*) Source: ‘Hindu Brahmo’, originally published in Tattwabodhini Patrika, Jaistha 1319; reproduced in RR, vol. 9, pp. 724–30.
(1) The organ of the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj started in 1878 with Sibnath Sastri as the editor.
(2) ‘Adi Brahmo Samaj o Unnatishil Brahmo Samaj’ (The Adi Brahmo Samaj and the Progressive Brahmo Samaj), Tattwakaumudi, 5 Baiskh 1319 BS/April 1912.
(3) ‘Brahmo Dharmer Mula Mat o Abantar Vishaya’ (The Core Principles of Brahmoism and Other Redundant Matter), Tattwakaumudi, 1 Baisakh 1319 BS/April 1912.
(4) ‘Hindu Kee?’ Tattwakaumudi, 16 Chaitra 1318 BS/March–April 1912.
(5) Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was an American Transcendentalist and Unitarian Minister, reformer, and abolitionist. He worked on improving penal legislation and the condition of women. He was widely read by Bengali Brahmos. In Tagore’s novel Gora, a Brahmo gentleman is shown to possess a whole set of Parker’s writings, running into several volumes.
(6) Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a German religious figure who started the Protestant Reformation against corrupt practices in the contemporary Church. The Reformation broke the unity of the medieval Church.
(7) ‘Bharatvarsher Brahmo Dharma’ (The Brahmo Religion of India), Tattwakaumudi, 1 Baisakh 1319 BS/April 1912.
(8) ‘Shada Kagoje Sakkhar’ (Signing a Blank Cheque), Tattwakaumudi, 1 Baisakh 1319 BS/April 1912.
13. Interpreting the Worship of Sakti*
My views on sakti worship that I expressed in the essay ‘Batayaniker Potro’,1 has provoked protests from several quarters.
In our country, one may discern broadly two trends concerning the worship of Siva and Sakti. One of these is based on scriptures and the other, on folk culture. In the former, Siva is an ascetic and a renunciant, whereas in the folk version, he is an insane and a most undisciplined person. The latter is commonly found in the Mangal Kavya literature2 of Bengal. Even the Siva described by (p.75) the court poet Bharatchandra3 is not in keeping with Aryan social conventions.
I admit that it is entirely possible to provide a textual and philosophical gloss on the concept of sakti.4 On the other hand, in the Mangal Kavyas, the nature of sakti, coloured as it is by folk culture, is perceptibly different. These works reflect the anxiety of a defeated and marginalized people who attribute their inexplicable pain and suffering to the displeasure of some cruel and capricious Power whom they then proceed to appease.
Historically, man’s worship originated in an attempt to overcome the horrors inflicted by a wrathful god. At the time, man could not perceive the cosmic laws at work behind the everyday functions of the world. For that reason he always remained perpetually in a state of anxiety and fear….
At a time when works like the Kavikankanchandi and the Annadamangal were written, human society was subjected to considerable instability and turbulence. Everywhere, there was the clash of opposing powers and none could tell what lay in store for him. Evidently, those who were able to sufficiently please the gods prospered even when he failed to separate truth from untruth and just from unjust acts. Attempts to secure personal salvation by pleasing the goddess Chandi5 was an integral part of contemporary religious culture and, usually, it was the class of the rich and the mighty who supported this since they were also the people mostly involved in the struggle for power.
Without adequate supporting evidence, it is difficult to establish the view that the god described in the scriptures is the god as originally conceived and that the folk versions are a relatively (p.76) modern adaptation. I believe that in this country there came a time when non-Aryan gods were progressively Aryanized. However, the gods that made their way to upper-class culture still carried many discordant elements in their character. Even today they carry certain remnants of both Aryan and non-Aryan cultures and in everyday life, the non-Aryan elements are visibly stronger.
Similar developments may be found in the history of Christianity. There was a time when Jehovah was quite partial to the Jews. That he was also an extremely cruel, a demanding, and a vindictive god is amply revealed by a reading of the Old Testament. However, under the influence of Jewish holy men, and finally of Christ himself, he turned into a universal god of love. But that he still carries conflicting elements is evident in everyday religious life. Even today he is the god of war and of human greed and avarice, and is most certainly a sectarian god. The extent to which Christians have persecuted non-Christians in his name is still unparalleled.
In our country Saktaism and Vaishnavism broadly constitute two autonomous forms of worship. In one of these there is animal sacrifice and the consumption of meat, and in the other, non-violence and vegetarian diets. Such differences are not without significance. Regardless of how certain works may interpret the word ‘pashu’ (animal) or other esoteric rites connected with sakta worship, these are not to be found in common public life. Hence, in my writings, I have accepted the commonplace meaning of the word sakti, a meaning that is associated with many symbols, rites, and amply manifest in the Mangal Kavya literature of Bengal.
We must remember though that Sakti would be the revered ideal for dacoits, thugs, and kapaliks. It is also important to bear in mind that Sakti worship permits animal sacrifice in order to secure personal objectives. Such worship also accommodates prayers ranging from seeking a questionable victory in litigation to that (p.77) desiring the extermination of all rivals or enemies. It was not my intention to examine whether or not there is in sakta works a deeper justification of Sakti worship outside the joining of a cruel deity and the immoral self-gratification of the devotee. We cannot overlook that meaning attached to Sakti worship that is deeply interwoven with popular culture. In folk ballads and allegories, this is indeed the predominant meaning, and everywhere, whether in civilized countries or the uncivilized, Sakti worship is equated with power. Such worship does not put to shame that which is unjust and false and it is still driven by greed and uses violence as the method of worship. In contemporary Europe, which avidly worships power, there is already an attempt to justify this greed. Rather than be something bad, they claim greed is god since it meets the requirements of the innately aggressive man. And since we have accepted the tutelage of Europe, such thoughts are being echoed here as well. On this question I have written elsewhere. Suffice to say here that in ‘Batayaniker Potro’ I have merely drawn attention to the concept of Sakti as commonly understood and this, I have to say, is little apart from naked self-aggrandizement and forcibly sacrificing he weak at the altar of the powerful.
All the same, it must be admitted that we ought to respect the higher ideals of any religious tradition as they survive in some scripture or in the life and work of some religious figure. In truth, such ideals must be taken to be higher than commonplace behaviour. It is always wiser to judge a religion in the light of its refinements than sheer spread or following….
(*) Source: ‘Saktipuja’ (The Worship of Sakti), first published in Probasi, Kartik 1326 BS/October–November 1919. Later included in the collection Kalantar (1937); reproduced in RR, vol. 12, pp. 583–5.
(1) Appeared in the journal Probashi, Ashad 1326 BS/June–July 1919.
(2) A genre of hagiographical religious literature produced in medieval Bengal in praise of various puranic or folk goddesses as, for instance, Annapurna, Chandi, Shitala, and Manasa.
(3) A major poet of late medieval Bengal, Bharatchandra (1712–1763) has authored several works in the Mangal Kavya genre.
(4) Literally, power but also a metaphysical principle employed in both Vaishnav and Sakta traditions. She is also taken to be the Creatrix.
(5) She is a terrifying form of Sakti; in the Markendaya Purana she is seen battling the asuras.
(p.78) 14. The Mystics of Medieval India*
… When a poet experiences Truth, he realizes that the manifestation of Truth is naturally beautiful. Hence, when he seeks to deal with the nature of Truth, he takes his mind away from all extraneous matters. In Vaishnav poetry, there is the suggestion that when Radha longs to unite with Krishna, she refuses to put on even her necklace, lest that prove to be a distraction. To her, Krishna alone is the Truth and the object of desire.
As in society, so also in literature we encounter people steeped in gross materialism. A materialist is easily made out by his excessive attachment to objects of even cosmetic value, especially because he simply cannot get at the Truth.
When I was trying to locate purity and aesthetics in Hindi poetry, with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, I happened to hear from Kshitimohan Sen a few verses in the Hindi language from Gyandas, a poet belonging to the Baghel Khand region. ‘I have at last got what I had been seeking,’ I exclaimed to myself, ‘this is the authentic stuff and truly sublime and there is nothing that will surpass these.’…
Through the help of Kshitimohan, I began to be acquainted with other saint-poets of the Hindi-speaking region. Today, there is no doubt in my mind that the kind of lyrics that once appeared in Hindi literature was of a very high order. However, some of (p.79) this poetry still suffers from neglect. This poetry must be recovered and suitable arrangements be made through which people from the non-Hindi-speaking areas too begin to appreciate its true worth.
In this poetry the aesthetic feeling that has been most intimately expressed is the love of God. We are familiar with similar poetry in European literature but find that it produces empty noises mostly. This explains why Christian religious songs could not enter the mansion of lay literature but remained confined to the chapel. The truth is that the god described in the scriptures is the god of the orthodox. We may compose verses in praise of this god or follow prescribed ritual acts or methods through which we are asked to approach him. But there is also the God that the devotee has perceived in his soul, the God who elicits unsolicited love and bliss and the God whom we celebrate in our songs. Truth may be worshipped through Beauty alone; the mythical Lord Vishnu, on the other hand, is pleased only by playing upon the veena.1
At one place, the poet Wordsworth has regretfully observed that we are involved with the world more than is necessary. In truth, our attachment to the world is not strong or intimate but somewhat loose and superficial. We tend to view the world partially, only in keeping with our changing requirements. We never focus all our attention on this world. Our relation with it varies; it could be firm but at times also tenuous and even conflicted….
In one of my earlier writings, I have tried to explain how our most sublime happiness comes when we act outside our petty interests and needs…. There is a difference between creativity and its opposite, which we must acknowledge. In creativity, the many appears to us as One, and when this is not the case, we tend to see matters in disparate ways. Society is one of man’s greatest creations and socially every man tries to see his oneness with fellow human beings. There is, on the other hand, the crowd or a (p.80) gathering of men in which every man pushes and jostles his way around so as to express his individuality…. But whereas the mansion is a creation, a heap of bricks represents its non-existence, and where bricks are crumbling down from a broken wall, there is simply the reversal of creation.
This unity that I have spoken of is not simply the coming together of various objects; there lies within this an unknown and indescribable mystery. The pleasure that we derive by looking at a flower does not lie within it alone; its beauty lies in some deeper Truth which harmonizes all objects in this universe. This Truth provides man with happiness and inspires him to create.
The God that the medieval saint-poets perceived is not the one described in our scriptures. Rather, He is the one who is located in human minds and hearts. Hence, his worship was not carried out through the chanting of some mystic syllable (mantra). Instead, he was invoked through songs. It was because He was directly manifest as Truth in life that he could also be manifest as natural and beautiful in poetry….
In the songs that our saint-poets composed or sung, this had been the source of inspiration. They had perceived Rama, the One and the Blissful in their very hearts. Most of these poets were untouchables by caste who never could possess the textual knowledge of the scholars or any familiarity with ritual conduct or customs followed by the faithful. It was because they were denied entry to temples that they looked inwards, into their own hearts. There are several terms originating in our scriptures that they have used wrongly, evidently out of sheer ignorance. The meaning that they gave to such terms does not at all conform to those given in the scriptures. Their Rama is not a character borrowed from some Purana. Even the great saint Tulsidas2 was (p.81) irritated by their unorthodox ways of worship. Quite naturally, he failed to see the excellence of such poetry because he read these from the perspective of the orthodox society.
The poets that I speak of constitute a special class. From Kshitimohan I gather that in our country, they are called maramiya (mystics).3 Such men stirred the very souls of men and it is from this that their poetry took birth. To them, Truth came not in some ornamental rhetoric but as the very outpourings of the soul. Those of us who prefer to travel only on conventionally prescribed paths are likely to believe that whatever these saint-poets create is close to a state of delinquency or madness. And yet their poetry contains Truths that are capable of transcending time and space. Wood taken from any tree may catch fire. However, the firewood that these men obtained was taken not from some particular place but from all that was around them. When sunlight falls on the leaves of a tree, they start drawing carbon from the atmosphere by virtue of some power inherent in them. Likewise, these mystics, no matter where they are located, had the power to draw upon natural elements to give expression to their most intimate feelings. Their Truth was not gathered from the pages of any manuscript and it is for this reason that their message appears so fresh and simple.
The Infinite cannot be comprehended through mere knowledge and hence the sages say that not having found Him, the mind returns to itself. By taking away all the mystic quality surrounding the Infinite, people recreate Him as the god of some particular community, the god as described in scriptures, a god stipulated in some memorandum of agreement drawn up by some people, a god relegated to pathways and marketplaces. This commonplace god is the one who grants boons, rescues the endangered, a god who is put on a frame like a picture, a god hard as a rock concealed in our fists, and which we may use to break each other’s (p.82) heads. The god of the maramiyas is a very different god; He is the Lord of the Heart.
The wise say that He may be obtained through bliss and contentment, not knowledge alone. In other words, when the heart feels the Infinite, it also begins to perceive Him as Immortality (amrita) and it is through this intimate aesthetic feeling that all our doubts are taken away. The poet Shelley sung songs in praise of this feeling and similar songs can be heard in the voice of our maramiyas. That which is mysterious is an area of darkness for knowledge; for the heart, however, this holds unbounded joy. It is through this joy that the heart is able to directly acknowledge the Truth of the Infinite….
Only he who has not savoured this feeling of Immortality is subject to the feelings of fear, hunger, or overbearing authority. He acknowledges only that god who rewards the faithful and punishes the wicked. This is the god to whose right is heaven and to the left, hell. He is the distant god who governs the universe by issuing strict orders. He is the god who can be pleased by sacrificing animals, the god for whose sake the world may be deluged in blood, and in whose name are perpetuated such acute differences between man and man, indifference and tyranny.
The maramiyas of India freed the mind of the devotee from the hold of scriptural authority. Their mission was to use tears of ecstatic love to wipe clean the blood-stained courtyards of our temples. They were the emissaries of that Rama whose appearance lights up our hearts and removes all distinctions between men…. The legacy of these gifted men is still at work. Whenever I see the loving bonds between Hindus and Muslims in this country, I at once realize that it is they who made this possible…. The descendants of the maramiyas still wander about in the villages of Bengal, singing songs to the accompaniment of the ektara.4 That single string of the ektara represents oneness. Understandably, (p.83) the orthodox are up in arms against them. However, those who have survived long years of neglect and tyranny are unlikely to give in to threats of social authoritarianism.
Since Indian society is vastly differentiated with its many languages, religions, and races, her essential message is to forge social unity. The greatest men that this country has produced attempted to build bridges of understanding between one man and another. It is because ritual and customary observances have weighed upon us so heavily that our greatest objective should now be to overcome these differences and acknowledge the inner Truth….
It is not as though the men who carried this message were always respected in this country. Having failed to wipe them out completely, people have resorted to tendentious imagination, putting an orthodox gloss on their life and work. This is but natural because such men were never a part of orthodox society just as Christ himself was a Jew, outside the society of the Pharisees.5 However, just because they have long suffered social neglect in this country cannot be a reason to call them non-Indians. They were the true Indians, if there were any. They united Hindus and Muslims not out of some practical necessity but because of the pure love and goodwill of their hearts. They alone were able to demonstrate in their spiritual lives, the wisdom of our ancient sages who believed that he alone knows the Truth who can perceive himself in all others….
It is the wisdom of our ancient sages that has now been revealed to us in the life of Rammohun Roy. In the light of the Upanishads which he mastered, Rammohun was able to perceive the Hindu, the Muslim, and the Christian in their true identities. His intelligence and the magnanimity of heart enabled him (p.84) to preach the unity of man in a country marked by acute social differentiation. And in trying to preach the doctrine of unity and non-differentiation, Rammohun brought down upon himself the wrath of his own people. Such people too have dared to call him a non-Indian who possess no knowledge other than that emanating from the West. But the very fact that such a man has been born among us goes to prove that the quest for Truth once voiced by Kabir, Nanak, and Dadu has still not deserted us….
(*) Source: Rabindranath Tagore’s Introduction to ‘Dadu’ edited by Kshitimohan Sen. First appeared in Probasi, Bhadra 1332 BS/August–September 1925; reproduced in Roy, Rabindranather Chintajagat: Dharmachinta, part II, pp. 253–9.
(1) A heavy, stringed instrument. In Hindu mythology, the veena is typically associated with the sage Narada, a great devotee of Vishnu.
(2) Major sixteenth-century Vaishnav poet from upper India, he is the author of the extremely popular text Ramacharitamanas. Tulsidas was a poet and saint of the saguna bhakti tradition as opposed to the nirguna bhakti of Kabir or Dadu.
(3) In all probability, a derivative of the word ‘maram’ which loosely translated is the inner chamber or the heart.
(4) One-stringed instrument commonly used by Baul singers while singing.
(5) Pharisees could represent a political party, a social movement or a school of thought among Jews in the second century BCE. Though the New Testament suggests sharp differences between Christians and Pharisees, this was not always so.