The Philosophical Foundations of Religious Consciousness
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 2: The Ethical and the Legalistic Stage of Religion

Yesterday during our session we had occasion to notice that a historical development of religious consciousness may be classified under five stages or phases. I designated these stages as the intuitive and the exploratory firstly, the ethical and the legalistic secondly, the epic and the theological thirdly, the mystical and the ritualistic fourthly, and the logical and the philosophical fifthly.

We took enough time to cover the gamut of this initial endeavour of the human mind to posit a super-physical reality in a multi-formed presentation of controlling powers directing and superintending over the phenomena of nature - whatever be the number of these occurrences, processes or events. It was felt that nothing can happen unless it is caused to happen; and this cause must have a purpose, an intention and an understanding as to what it is doing and why it is doing it when it directs the multifaceted phenomena of nature.

Through the history of religions, we observe this particular phase of the adoration of divine beings. We have the most ostensible form of this kind of envisioning divinities above humanity and physical nature in the original concept of the Greek religion, which posited the gods as living in Mount Olympus with Zeus or some such divinity ruling the destiny of all people. They did not go higher to the latterly conceived heavens populated by the gods. Their gods were very near, on the mountain top. And we have other instances of this kind in different religions where the gods, like the ones described in the Iliad of Homer or the Odyssey, are more human than divine. They can speak human language. Divinities like Athena, the great guiding divinity of Greek religion, could order the march of the Greek army against the Trojans and also instruct Odysseus how he had to come back after the war was over, and so on.

The gods were considered as capable of speaking in human tongues, thinking as human beings would think, and being endowed with emotions and even prejudices which characterise human nature, generally speaking. Some of these traits are found even in the gods of the Veda Samhitas. Many they can be, endless they are, to control whatever man considers as the composition of nature, placing the gods somehow or other above human thought, sometimes above human reach, and perhaps above the physical world.

Yet, as we noticed yesterday, the coming of the gods into accessibility by human beings creates a doubt as to the manner in which this descent can take place, because a super-physical divinity that is outside and beyond the world cannot maintain that beyondness or distance from the physical world when it has also the duty to take care of the physical world - people living on the earth - every day, or constantly, we may say. The Jews established covenants with the Supreme Being. For every little trouble they would invoke Him. And, God posited in that manner has His own loves and hatreds. He can punish and curse and destroy; and He can also bless and elevate.

But the coming of God from the transcendent super-physical realm - the divinities as they were considered earlier - associates these divinities with another characteristic of immanence, because that which is beyond the physical world, reigning transcendentally with a distance maintained between the physical world and the heavenly world, can have its arms reaching the earth of human beings only if there is a possibility of that arm reaching the earth at all. This power associated with the divinities, by which they can remain above the physical world transcendentally and also reach out to the littlest difficulties of humanity, makes them nearer also and not just farther. They are transcendent, and are also immanent.

Yesterday I cited the Varuna Sukta of the Atharva Veda which is the highlight, I should say, next only to the Purusha Sukta, of the summoning of God as a Universal Immanence permeating and percolating every atom of the cosmos and counting every breath of a human being, and knowing every movement that is taking place even in the corner of the world. The Veda Samhitas are the nearest examples of this positing a heavenly world populated by divinities - gods over nature, gods in heaven with their own emblems, functions, locations, powers, and limitations. They come down. The Upanishads go further in an elucidation of the manner of this coming down, though formalistically it can be considered as an incarnation - a descent from the skies like an angel dropping or as rain would fall. This is a picturesque presentation of the childhood stage of man where humanised gods are conceived as coming down physically, visibly, with an intelligible and visible form associated with them, and doing the work for which they have come.

This relationship of a heavenly transcendence and earthly immanence brought before the eyes of the sages of the Upanishads a concept of the Universal which is not just transcendent, and not just immanent. It is the coming together of that which is above and that which is below. The remotest thing becomes the nearest thing, in which process of the remote and the near coming together there is a universal immanence together with its transcendence brought before the mental eye of religious apprehension.

If you study the Veda Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads with a historical perspective before your mind, you will notice the stages of the development of the recognition of gods as necessary guides, friends and philosophers of people, leading gradually to the highest concept of it being not possible for these divinities to be away at all - because even if they are a little away, they may not listen to our prayers. The smallest distance between us and the gods may cause a delay in the coming of the god to the succour of people. The divinities are supposed to act instantaneously, in a timeless manner. The very thought of Indra, Mitra or Varuna is enough to bring that divinity to action just at that moment.

Hence the gods, notwithstanding the fact of their superiority as super-physical beings, had also an element of timelessness in them which would, at the same time, be inseparable from spacelessness. These questions were raised in the Upanishads many a time and in various ways, right from the Isa up to the Svetasvatara Upanishad, in a movement of thought considering this characteristic as feasible now, and considering the other characteristic of the divinity as practicable and necessary at other times, and so on. This ended finally in the glorious conclusion of the highest proclamations of the Upanishads, delineated again in the Bhagavadgita, that every quality can be attributed to the divinities that finally form a hierarchy of ascent and descent - not constituting individually located, isolated persons, but functions of an otherwise omnipresent existence.

Here we have the earliest thought of religious awareness, bringing us from the super-physical transcendence down to the inconceivable immanence of an otherwise-universal eternity. Though these descriptions can be briefly stated in these few words taking just a few minutes of time, the development actually took ages. Large tomes of exposition have been published as researches into the methods and the processes involved in the movement of this religious awareness from point to point until it became complete and perfect and there was no necessity for it to move at all.

Many Western thinkers consider Indian thought to be stagnant - that it has come to a stop, that it cannot develop further - whereas Western thought even now is on the march forward, it is moving and progressing, and it is innovating. Every day there is a new finding in thought and action in the Western cultural pattern, whereas it is felt that Indian thought has stopped. It stopped with the Upanishads, it stopped with Acharya Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, and today we have nothing more to say. Why should we have endless progress, when progress has to reach the destination one day or the other? Are we always only walking, without reaching the destination? What is the point in thinking that progress is the watchword of nature, and it should not end anywhere at all? This criticism of Western thought is short-sighted and fallible, because there cannot be only progress and process without reaching anything finally. It is the glory of Indian thought that it has reached the apex of possibility in human consciousness. The river has reached the ocean, and it need not move further. Thus it is not stagnant, as is wrongly attributed to the perfection of Indian thinking. It is a completion that has been achieved, a perfection and a stability that characterises the achievement of the goal itself.

When religion is mainly concerned with God-consciousness, whatever be the shape, characteristic or form earlier attributed to God - plurality, duality, hierarchy, group, or unity, whatever the case may be - one thing is common in all these processes of development of religious thought: namely, there has to be a divinity. The divinity may be one or it may be manifold. It may be anywhere, but it has to be somewhere. And it is not enough if it is somewhere; it has also to be accessible to the summoning individual. And it should not take time to come; it has to act instantaneously. These were the gradual modifications made to the characterisation of the divinities by human thinking, with various links and gaps in the middle, finally forming a continuous chain of development ending in the concept of the Absolute � the Brahman of the Upanishads, the Ishvara or the Purushothama of the Bhagavadgita.

As it is said, the Indian concept of religion has somehow or other come to a stop on account of its conviction that it has reached its goal. If this is so, it is up to this consciousness of perfection to see how it can become part and parcel of the law and order of the world. A word is mentioned briefly in the Veda in relation to order and law in the world. Rita is the word used in the Samhitas, which is supposed to be the temporal manifestation of the eternal sanatana law - which is satya, God Himself. The ordering of the human life in the light of this recognition of a God operating transcendentally as well as immanently becomes the next question, which is the modus operandi of human existence: how you and I should conduct ourselves - how we have to live in this world when faced with this great concept of ruling divinities which are all-pervading.

Here the system becomes introduced into social existence. Anthropologists tell us that originally there was no society. It was a state of nature - that is, just individuals living totally isolated, like beasts. Some political scientists, even stalwarts, were of the opinion that originally man was like a wolf. Perhaps he is like a wolf even today. And every wolf is afraid of every other wolf because each has the same power as the others. One can tear the other. But who will tear whom is a question which cannot be decided by anyone. I am mentioning here the theory of Thomas Hobbs, the great political scientist who conceived the origin of government as the coming together of wolves in a pack and speaking to one another, saying: “This state of affairs is not satisfactory. I am afraid of you; you are afraid of me. How long can we live like this? We must have a system.”

The ethical governmental principle of law and order seems to have originated on account of it being impossible for wolves to live together unless there is some agreement or understanding among them. What is the agreement? The wolves told one wolf, “You should tell us how we should behave, and whatever you say will be law for us. If you say something is not proper, we shall not do it. If we make any mistake, you have the power to punish us; and if we do the right thing, you have the power to bless and grace us.” The wolf replied, “How can I control you? You are so many in number and I am only one.” “We shall give you a group of us that will protect you,” they said. This is the army and the police. And this one wolf is guarded and protected and kept secure by a batch of wolves that sees that the majority of wolves do not attack and destroy or shake the position of this chosen, elected wolf. This is a political concept of the beginning of law.

But religion does not think that law and order originated in the manner that the contract theory of political science would tell us. The necessity to introduce law into the world arises on account of there being a God who is omnipresent. It is not because we are wolves; that is not the reason. Inasmuch as there is an omnipresence controlling even the littlest modicum of physical existence, it follows automatically as a corollary that this all-pervading omnipresence should also determine the give-and-take policy and the mutual relationship of people in this world. My attitude towards you or your attitude towards me should not in any way contradict the presence of an omnipresent reality; and it is up to us to draw conclusions from the fact of there being such a thing as an omnipresence reality.

How would we conduct ourselves in this world if there is an omnipresence permeating every cell of our body and every atom of the physical world? We have many weaknesses, together with the great aspirations that we have at the same time – namely, the power to recognise that there is such a thing as omnipresence. It is not a small achievement, of course. The brain of the human being should be immensely powerful and capable of accommodating impossible ideas such as the ideas of eternity and infinity. Philosophers sometimes humorously tell us that what is wonderful and surprising is not that God exists; what is surprising is that the little brain of this puny human individual is capable of conceiving such a thing as God. That is the marvel – not just the existence of God. There is a miraculous potentiality in the little brain of the human individual which is the vehicle of a consciousness that is commensurate with omnipresence itself.

The weaknesses of human nature are also taken into consideration while framing laws and regulations in the world – which is the second stage of ethics and legality. It is not enough if we consider only our strengths and our greatnesses, which also should always be taken into account, of course; but a little margin and a little bit of concession has to be given to the weaknesses of human nature – namely, desires. The concept of God is a power and a potentiality of great magnificence in the human mind, no doubt, but it has other capacities also, such as running to sense objects, wanting a lot of land and property and money, the grabbing habit of wealth, intensely working hard for maintaining this physical body by hook or by crook, and the vehement longings of an emotional nature – together with the final philosophically-concluded aim of unity with the omnipresent God.

From Manu onwards these features – among the many possible weaknesses of human nature – were broadly classified by the legalistic ethical codes called the Smritis, and these human potentials were grouped into a fourfold category known as dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Moksha, of course, is the well-known consequence that follows from there being such a thing as infinite and omnipresent existence – without which, even breathing is not possible – and unity with which, of course, has to be the be-all and end-all of all human life. It is taken for granted that moksha is our aim.

But, what about the other things? “My desire for money and land, my hunger and thirst, my emotional requirements; what do you say about them? Provision also has to be made for them.” You can have money, you can have land, you can have a house; we do not object to that. Fulfil your aesthetic sense also. All the fine arts may give you satisfaction, enjoyment; we do not object to this also. Artha and kama, let them be with you. But please listen that this permission that you can enjoy material comfort and you can have emotional satisfaction is given to you under a proviso of law that, on the one hand, your permission to enjoy material and emotional comforts should not in any way deprive another person from having the same facility as you would like to have. That is, there should be a proportionate distribution of this permission that is granted, in the light of there being many people in the world – not only one or two. Otherwise, you will become a thief or an exploiter. An exploiter is one who takes for one’s own self more than what can be conceded in the light of the existence of many other people also in society.

So, on the one hand, the gracious grant given to you should not in any way tilt the balance heavily only on your side. You should take into consideration the harmonious relationship that you have to maintain with other people also. If you have to eat, others also have to eat. If you have to live, others also have to live. And if you want to enjoy, others also would like to enjoy. Live and let live. This should be your motto.

This is one side of the matter, socially. But on the other side, the permission given to you to enjoy physically and emotionally should not contradict your movement towards the Absolute. You should not become a fallen angel, a weakened individual, an incapacitated seeker deprived of the facility necessary for contacting the supreme goal, which is omnipresence.

So while you are given the permission to live comfortably in this world, materially and emotionally, two things have to be borne in mind. You should not hurt, injure or exploit other people around you. They should also be as happy as you are, or you can be. But, more important than this is that God should not be angry with you. That is to say, the higher Self, which is the omnipresent Reality, should not in any way feel defeated or ignored in your over-indulgence in physical comforts and emotional enjoyments.

This restriction that is heavily brought upon the otherwise-beautiful permission granted to enjoy physically and emotionally is dharma. The law of harmony is called dharma. Law, order, system, harmony, symmetry, method – keeping everything spick and span, clean and neat, also may be considered as dharma. Dharma is a cohesive force which brings together into a state of harmony and equilibrium parts which are otherwise separate. Two persons cannot become one person, and yet it is necessary for two persons to live in society as if they are one person. Partnership, family, government, community, nation – all these imply two living as if they are one, though physically, genetically, anatomically, and physiologically two cannot become one. Two people are two people. They have got two different stomachs, but they have to live as if they are one. That is the spirit of organisation, which commences the moment one is compelled to live with another person. When it is impossible for you to live alone and another person also has to be with you for some reason or other, a law-and-order situation arises and the question of dharma also starts. Administration, institutional management, governmental enactments – everything starts from there being another, other than one’s own self.

Society is a quality which has been ingrained into the very stuff of the human individual. Therefore, many a time we are told that man is a social animal. Because of the weaknesses of the physical body and the frailties of the human personality, generally speaking, and the weaknesses of the mind, it is necessary for us to live with other people. Totally isolated, individual, physically independent existence is very difficult, even if you live in Uttarkashi or Gangotri. You have to eat a little food which you have not grown with your own hands. That is to say, there is support necessary from another, other than your own self. This is a kind of social life. So while social life is incumbent upon human individuals because nobody can live totally physically independently on account of the frailties of the very construction of the human individuality, it is necessary to concede that there is law operating and must be operating in the midst of human society. Hence dharma, the law of regulating relationships among people, comes into relief even in the midst of these permissions granted for a comfortable living, physically and emotionally. Thus, here come dharma, artha, and kama in the light of moksha. I need not repeat the word moksha, because it has now become very clear that the very conclusion drawn by the highest reach of religious consciousness is that God exists, and it is an omnipresent existence. Because of the presence of that Almighty power permeating everything inside and outside, social regulations become necessary, and individual discipline also is called for.

Social stratification and individual discipline also follow from the concept of the purusharthas. These four aims mentioned – dharma, artha, kama, moksha – are known as the purusharthas, or the aims of the human individual. Artha is a final aim, and purusha, of course, is human individual. The final aim of life is of this fourfold character – dharma, artha, kama, moksha – which has to be implemented and achieved in society while living in the midst of family, in a community, in a country, or even in an international brotherhood. For this purpose, the varnashrama dharma was further conceived as an additional development of this original concept of the purusharthasdharma, artha, kama, moksha. Each person should work, should contribute something to society. Nobody can sit idle. Inasmuch as every person requires amenities from society, keeping quiet without doing anything is impossible, not merely because the Bhagavadgita says so, but even economically; and from the point of view of common sense, it follows that we have to make some contribution. In what way can we make this?

There are four ways in which we can make a contribution to human society: by our knowledge, wisdom, understanding and intellection – our scientific, philosophical, educational capacities, number one; by the power of our arms and strength of physicality in administration, hard work and organisation; by producing economic goods by tilling and trading, etc.; and by actual manual labour. This concept of the fourfold capacities and possibilities of contribution from people to society was originally designated as that traditional concept of brahmana, kshatriya, vaisya and sudra – whose meaning has been very much abused these days, though they have a philosophical and ultimately a spiritual connotation, as one could notice by careful observation.

This is the social stratification conceived for the purpose of commanding every individual to be in a position to contribute something to society in the place and station which is occupied by that particular individual – guna karma vibhagasah, as the Gita would say – according to our quality and our potentiality to work. While this is very important – a social collaboration is necessary and each one has to participate in this collaborative activity individually and collectively – there is also a need for personal discipline. We are not only to work horizontally with people, but we are also to work inwardly for an upward ascent for the sake of a universal realisation in the end.

This concept of the vertical ascent was stratified in the concept of the other fourfold phase: brahmacharya, garhasthya, vanaprastha and sannyasa. Studentship, study, continence, discipline under a teacher for several years is brahmacharya. Then the living of a family life for working for a livelihood and gaining experience in the world is garhasthya. Thereafter, a gradual detachment from involvement of every kind in the world of social life is vanaprastha. Then a complete dedication of the mind for God-realisation is sannyasa.

So we have here, in the ethical institutions introduced by the Smritis, a legalistic approach also. It becomes a command from inside and, therefore, it is ethics and morality. It becomes a command from outside also, so it becomes law and order and enactment. It is both moral and legal – moral because it is an impulsion that has to arise from within us, and it is legal because it is a compulsion that is being pressed upon us by the necessities of social existence.

The Smritis – Manu, Yajnavalkya, Parasara, and other Smritis – go into great detail into the structure of human society and the duties of man, both by way of the fulfilment of the purushartha – dharma, artha, kama, moksha – in a well-harmonised manner, in giving due proportion to considering the station, the strength and the weakness of the individual concerned, and also the need to work in society through the varna dharma, and finally to work for the salvation of the soul through the ashrama dharma.