The Philosophical Foundations of Religious Consciousness
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 1: The Explorative or the Intuitive Stage of Religion

This is the first day of Sadhana Week, and it is to continue for seven days, concluding on the 25th of this month. Usually, during these periods of the Week of Sadhana, practically every year, it has been a tradition of this Ashram to ask me to pinpoint whatever I say to a kind of sequential development of thought in the manner of an exposition of a central point of view which may form a kind of mini-textbook. This has been going on since many years, and I have been asked again this year what I will speak. I have always avoided answering this question because I did not know what I would speak. Anyway, some novel idea struck me yesterday evening of something which you might not have heard up to this time, though not entirely unknown to you, may be endeavoured to be presented in a brief outline. Though the theme that is attempted is profound enough as it is a coverage of the whole gamut of Indian religious thought, it will, I believe, at the same time, provide a philosophical foundation for the entire process of the development of the religious consciousness in the mind of man.

Religion, to be defined, is the longing of the soul for the Self of the Universe. From the earliest time onwards this inner aspiration of the human individual seems to have developed itself through five stages of what we may call the religious or the spiritual approach. The first stage may be considered as the intuitive and the explorative stage, the second the ethical and legalistic stage, the third the epic and the theological stage, the fourth the mystical and the ritualistic stage, and the fifth the logical and the philosophical stage.

We have, throughout the history of the religions of the world, a feature discoverable in the minds of people which got pressurised from within to look upon the world of perception as being governed by forces or powers, because it was not easy for any sensible or investigative understanding to account for the phenomena of the world: the rising of the sun, the setting of the sun, the rising and the setting of the stars, the seasons, the rainfall, and the various astronomical permutations and combinations taking place causing varieties of repercussions, individually and socially. It was incumbent on the part of every human mind to question the possibilities of there being causes behind these phenomena. If rain falls, there must be a reason why the rain falls. If the sun rises, there must be something to explain why the sun rises at all. If there are seasons changing and differing one from the other, there is also to be a reason why they change. Why is it hot? Why is it cold? Why is it spring? Why is it autumn? Is it a medley of chaotic operations taking place in the world, or is there a sensible explanation behind these operations? This question is itself a religious question. It is an asking for the presence and activity of something that is not to be seen in this world, because what we see in this world is only the effect. The rainfall, the drought, the heat of the sun, the coming and the going of things, the seasons, the stellar operations, the winds, etc. – these themselves are not their own explanations, since these operations are in the form of effects observed in sense perception. The world as a whole is an object of our perception. It seems to be modifying itself, undergoing transformations of different kinds every moment. We know that the earth is rotating on its axis every minute. It revolves around the sun and it also tilts, causing summer and winter. These are the processes of nature which are not explained by the processes themselves. The earth does not tell us why it is gyrating in the manner that it does, though it is a fact that such an operation takes place.

An inherent trait of the human being is to discover causes behind effects. If something happens, we must know why it happens. If someone is ill, we must know why the person has fallen ill, in order that proper medical treatment may be administered. The ‘how’ of a thing is supposed to be the field of scientific investigation, and the ‘why’ of a thing is transcendent to scientific observation. Yet, the ‘why’ is a persistent question with us. The early religions of the world have attempted an answer to these queries, positing varieties of controlling powers behind the several natural occurrences.

There is a controlling power which causes the dawn in the morning, there is another which causes the evening sunset, and there are many other powers of this kind. Every bit of event or occurrence is embodied in a central operation. A nucleus has to be there to condition the operations, whatever they are. There can be any number of operations, and there should also be any number of causes behind them.

Now, this brings us to a question of there being many causes for the events that are many in this world. It is something like modern medical science which is accustomed to specialisation in hundreds of fields of physical treatment, opining that every ailment has a particular cause. If we sneeze and catch a cold it has one cause, which is different from the cause of an ache in the stomach. If we have trouble breathing, the cause of that trouble in the breathing process is not the same as the cause of palpitations in the heart. If we have a boil on the foot, the cause of it is different from the cause that brings about pain in the ear. This is the modern system of specialisation, so that a person who can heal our foot cannot heal our ear, and so on. This is not to be regarded as an advanced form of understanding of the physiological system of the human being, because later on we will realise that the aches which are many in number, which are different from one another, are really interconnected by a dislocation that is taking place in the whole system which is the primal cause of all the other minor secondary causes appearing to be at the back of the ailments mentioned, physiologically speaking.

In a similar manner, there has been a development of religious thought. In the earlier stages, it is common for anyone who is capable of seeing things through the sense organs to consider that every event is independent of every other event. Something that is taking place in India need not necessarily be attributed to the causative factors of something taking place in another country. Geographical, national and circumstantial causes are generally considered as historically different from the causes of even similar events in other parts of the world – though there is much more to say about this than what appears on the surface.

The winds of the cosmos do not blow only on India or on any part of the country. They envelop the whole earth. The cosmic forces, or the rays as we call them these days, have such an impact upon every particle of dust on the earth in this world that we cannot say that events are capable of segregation in the manner that ordinary commonsense would permit.

Anyway, in earlier stages we can say that man was a commonsense individual and it was necessary, therefore, to envisage a commonsense cause behind the varieties of occurrences. It is impossible for us to rest quiet without questioning the causes behind events taking place in the world. If there is a cyclone or a tornado, why has it taken place? Could it have been avoided? As we say, if there has been an illness, perhaps it could have been avoided by certain measures that we could have taken earlier, etc. These are ways of positing causes behind effects.

Inasmuch as a cause behind an effect should be intelligent and purposive, it was also called a divinity – a divinity because of the fact that it is not earthly, and it is not capable of confinement to this physical world. We always call that thing divine which is not of this world. A super-physical phenomenon is generally regarded as heavenly, celestial, or divine.

Thus, causes which were supposed to be behind the multifarious events and occurrences in the world were endowed with intelligence, and they constituted a heavenly world of the divinities we call gods. So there are gods in the heavens, as there are people in this world. The necessity to posit gods in the heavens arises for the same reason that we posit a nucleus in an atom. An atom is the world, and there is a nucleus in the centre of it, which explains the movement of the particles that constitute that atom.

Why should there be a nucleus? It may not be there; let the atom be there. As we say, why should there be a God or divinities in the heavens? Why should there be celestials, or superintending forces? Why is the world not enough? Many people are satisfied with this world. As a gross, inexperienced scientist may say, the atom is a self-explanatory phenomenon. That it is not self-explanatory is something that is discovered much later. That is to say, the atom is conditioned by a nucleus which itself does not actively participate in the action of the atom – as the activities of the world are totally controlled and conceived by the solar orb shining in the sky, yet the sun in the sky does not take part in any of the activities of this world. In the same way, this central nucleus in the atom is responsible for the gyration, the revolution of the electrons, which constitute finally the so-called shape of the atom. The nucleus is there, and it has to be there, as the central ‘sun’ that causes the movement of these electrons and also causes the atom to appear as it ought to be.

The sun makes the world what it is. Because of the sun, the world is what it is; otherwise, it would have been something different. Yet, the sun does not participate in the activities of the world. Similarly, the gods do not participate in the action of the world. Heaven is unconnected with this tragic world of suffering and sorrow – not connected at all – in the same way as the sun in the sky is not connected with the sorrows of people here. Yet, there would not be people at all to sorrow if the sun were not there. The people themselves would not exist, so the question of sorrow would not arise. Therefore we may say that in a way, secondarily, the sorrows and joys and the events of the world are caused by the sun in the sky – but only in a way, not really, because the sun does not actually act upon the world individually or by actual participation. So is the case with the gods, the causes of natural phenomena. The envisagement of the divinities behind the cosmos as existing behind each event and occurrence in the world is like the positing of a nucleus behind every atom, yet not permitting the participation of the nucleus in the activities of the atom.

Here we have the first conclusion of religion, among many other conclusions that are to follow – namely, a heavenly world must exist, and gods have to be there populating this heavenly world in the same way as nuclei have to be there in atoms. And as the world consists of an infinite number of atoms containing these nuclei, which are also infinite in number, the gods are, therefore, infinite in number. The worship of divinities in various forms, various shapes, and various possibilities and potentialities is supposed to be the first phase of religion. We pray to a god of this particular occurrence or that particular occurrence.

There are many religions in this world. There are at least four major Semitic religions and four major Eastern religions. The four major Semitic religions are Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam. The Eastern major religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. We can add several more, such as Sufism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism. So we have about twelve religions in this world. Each one of these religions has a peculiar uniform characteristic of positing divinities behind physical phenomena.

Gods are looked upon as residing in heaven. The Judaic God or the Christian God or the God of Islam is in heaven: the Father in heaven. We look up to the skies and offer our prayers because of this transcendent character that we attribute to God, as we look to the sun above in the sky – though we ourselves are a part of the solar system and the sun is not above us, physically speaking. The concept of there being something above is due to our spatial isolatedness from the central structure which is the whole solar system. In a similar manner, we conceive of a god or a heavenly world transcendent to the physical world, notwithstanding the fact that these gods have also to be immanent as well as transcendent – immanent because of the fact that they are present inside us also. They are not merely inside some phenomena taking place outside us as observed facts of nature; they are inclusive of everything that we ourselves can be and are, because we ourselves form part of the natural world. Our incapacity to consider ourselves as part of the world is the reason why we consider the gods as transcendent and look upon them as something existing in the skies. But the moment we begin to feel our presence as integral participants in the structure of the whole world, the immanence of the divinities also becomes clear, and God becomes transcendent and immanent at the same time.

Here we have the second stage of religion, where the transcendence which is emphasised in certain religions, especially the Semitic ones, later on also permits the immanence, as emphasised in Eastern religions, to further develop into a blend of both the transcendent and the immanent. The trait of looking upon the divinities in the heavens as something above us, casting our eyes to the skies – looking up to the heavens in prayer – is something ingrained in us on account of our incapacity to feel a oneness with the world outside, with the society of people, with anything whatsoever. We appear to be always observers, perceivers of the world; we are not part of the world.

Here is a sentence that we have to underline. We always emphasise, wrongly, that we are observers – lookers upon, and visualisers of the world. We never believe that we are part of the world.  If we concede that it is impossible for us to stand outside the world because our own physical individual personality is constituted of the very same stuff as the world is – then, if that is the case, no event in the world is caused by something that is outside us. We are also partly responsible for anything that is happening in the world. We cannot say, “Somebody did something,” “He is responsible for the evils of the world,” “Such a thing has happened due to that man’s mistake.” These statements cannot be wholly true, because a little bit of contribution has also been made by us for the existence of these troubles, inasmuch as we cannot stand outside the world totally.

Nevertheless, we want to stand outside; the world is to be considered as an object of perception. We cannot regard ourselves as anything but subjects looking upon the world. But how can there be a world of perception at all if it is totally segregated from the perceiving consciousness?

So, religion rises again from that initial impulse to recognise causes behind effects as constituting the nuclei of events taking place in the world, as operating transcendent to the visible phenomena, as being intelligent and purposive in their nature because of the fact that they are super-physical. They are gods and divinities and celestials. These were the initial concepts of religion everywhere in the world, in all the phases of religion right from the beginning of the history of mankind. These concepts developed gradually into the recognition of it being necessary for the heavens to come down to the world for our immediate succour – the incarnations, as we speak of: the God coming, the Christ coming, the Messiah coming, the Avataracoming. These ideas are the subsequent development of a more mature religious consciousness that wants God to come to the earth also; He cannot remain only in the skies, transcendent and unconcerned with the affairs of the world. Thus the transcendent cause, multifarious in its nature and multiple in its existence, becomes, at the same time, an operative individual and immanent cause. The gods become individuals in heaven, becoming conscious of everything that is taking place in the world.

Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Surya – whatever devata we hear of in such scriptures as the Rig Veda Samhita – are gods originally considered as transcendent beings looked upon in the sky, as it were, beyond the earth, but later on recognised as controlling forces of nature. We have the Varuna Sukta of the Atharva Veda, which is a marvellous composition of the Veda Samhita, where the total God is made picturesquely presentable before our eyes, as it were, controlling the whole cosmos within and without – the transcendent and the immanent becoming closer and closer until they become one Absolute.

There are varieties of the developments of this initial explorative stage, as I call it. I mentioned that there are about five stages of religion. I purposely intended to designate these stages in my own way as explorative, ethical and legal, epic and ethological, mystical and ritualistic, and philosophical and logical.

As I mentioned, I will try to scan these stages as far as possible within these few days. This is an interesting subject, and it is not merely a glib investigation of a scientific and philosophical nature. It is a practical touch that is given to the very religion that you are practising, so that this little knowledge that you would be able to imbibe within these days may actually energise your personality by convincing you that the heavens are not outside you; they are operating inside you. The Kingdom of God is within you.