by Swami Krishnananda
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.