Chapter 3: The Epic and the Theological Stage of Religion
Religious instruction is supposed to come in three ways or methods, known as Prabhu Samhita, Suhrit Samhita and Kanta Samhita. The first one is an instruction that comes directly as if from a court, which compels a person to do a thing on account of the strictness and the precision of the order. The proclamations in the Vedas and the Smritis come under this category: “This has to be done, and this should not be done.” Whether or not we are able to appreciate this instruction and accommodate it to our practical life voluntarily, of our own accord, is immaterial to the giver of the instruction. It has to be done whether we like it or not; and, also, it has not to be done, whether we are agreeable to it or not. Prabhu is the overlord, an authority, a ruler giving the instructions. Such a text, such religious literature comes under what is usually known, in Hindu tradition, as Prabhu Samhita.
The second category is instruction coming from a friend to a friend: “It should be done like this. It is good for us because many have done it in this manner. Look at the other people. They have behaved like this, did this kind of thing and they succeeded, so it would be proper for us to do this also.” This is an instruction not coming like a court order but as a mutually agreed understanding of common consent. This kind of religious literature comes under the category of Suhrit Samhita.
There is a third variety, an instruction that comes from the lover to the beloved or from the beloved to the lover. They are of a different category altogether. They are more intimate in the manner of communication of ideas – not like the ideas that come from a court or a king, not even like a friend speaking to a friend, but something of a different character altogether. This category of literature is called Kanta Samhita.
As I mentioned, the basic religious texts of the world come under the category of Prabhu Samhita. Whether a Bible or a Veda or a Koran or whatever be the basic text of a religion, it tells us what has to be done and the way in which it has to be done. Most religions in the world consider God as a lawgiver, a superior authority over us – and we know what an authority means. It is a scientific approach which need not necessarily be connected with feeling or even the appreciation of the circumstance or condition prevailing in another person.
Judicial authority is like that. It does not bother as to what will happen to a person in case the order is executed, because the order is according to the principles laid down and, therefore, it has to be communicated. There is no friendly relationship between an authority and the one over whom the authority is exercised. It is, therefore, a parental attitude. In religions, in the beginning stages at least, there is an odd relation between oneself and one’s maker – that is to say, we look upon our God with tremendous fear, and we are awestruck by the might and the power that the divinity wields and the work that can be wrought by the divinity either in favour of or against anyone.
The stages of religious consciousness that we have been discussing for the last two days concern themselves mainly with the Prabhu Samhita aspect of religion: the scriptural and the codified legal methods of religious communication. In India, this system is followed in the Vedas and the Srutis and Smritis. But human nature, which has to react entirely for the purpose of a religious awakening, should not be allowed to withdraw some aspects of it in answer to a particular religious call on account of the fact that there are certain aspects of our nature which are not evoked into action by the religious mandate. For instance, our affections, our little difficulties, our longings, our loves, our dislikes, which are part of our very existence, cannot be thrown away into the dustbin as if they do not exist at all merely because we are religious students. Religion cannot become an order issued in a concentration camp, though such appears to be the codified instructions apparently coming from a mighty authority above – at least from the point of view of what we hear through the scriptures, which are said to be orders issued by God Himself or by a prophet come as an ambassador of God.
Religion is not mere obedience to authority. It is something more than that. Though obedience to authority forms part of the religious submission in the practice of spiritual life, it is not merely surrender of oneself unwilling to an authority that is pressing heavily upon oneself. It is a willing offering of oneself entirely, from every side of one’s nature, to the meaning involved in the instructions that have come from above.
Voluntary acceptance of an order is different from an involuntary obedience to it due to fear. Religion cannot be merely an outcome of fear. It is much more than that. It has to be actually a voluntary undertaking by the individual due to a longing inside, an aspiration, and affection for the authority – not fear of authority, but affection for authority: love. The scriptures mentioned have very little scope for the manifestation of human affection in terms of God Almighty, who has to be invoked day in and day out for the redress of grief and suffering of every kind in the world.
The gods come in the form of an incarnation, or avatara, whenever the call of humanity summons them. We also noticed this earlier – the battle with evil and overcoming, with the power of the avataras’ wisdom and energy, all the causes of evil in this world, which are the sources of sorrow in private life as well as in public life. A heroic aspect of the religious presentation is the occupation of the epics, or the great heroic poems of the world. We have great heroic poems in India – the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are heroic poems of a religious nature in other countries also – for instance, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. They are religiously orientated war-like poems, as also the case with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – highly religious, no doubt, but militant in their diction and their approach, generally speaking. We have other epics like ‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘Paradise Regained’ of Milton. They are highly religious in nature but spiritedly present the power of God as opposed to the power of evil, Satan, whom He subdues persistently in a battle that perpetually goes on, as it were, from endless beginning to endless end.
The Puranas tell us much more about this battle of the divine powers with evil forces. It is not merely Ravana and Kumbhakarna, or Duryodhana and his collegues that are the themes of the heroic poems. This heroism of religious spirit has been inculcated right from the time of creation itself. For instance, the Markandeya Purana tells us that there was a war between Vishnu, or Narayana, and Madhu and Kaitabha, who are the earliest conception of evil in the world.
When we depict a personality as an embodiment of evil, we always bring them in two characters: Madhu and Kaitabha, Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakasipu, Ravana and Kumbhakarna, Sisupala and Dantavakra, etc. They do not come singly. The dual aspect implies on the one hand their capacity to attack the psyche of a human being and also society as a whole. They also imply the double character of evil in the world – namely, direct wickedness which goes by the name of the well-observed inequalities of life, and the subtle operation of the evil spirit which does not necessarily come in the form of an observed wickedness or source of dislike, but is painted with a colour and a gorgeous presentation of what may look like an attractive and desirable object.
The whole world is evil, in one way, because it is a tantalising phenomenon which cannot promise anything worthwhile, and all its promises are futile in the end. It dangles a piece of carrot in front of our nose, as the adage goes, and the carrot will never enter the mouth because as we move forward in the direction of that carrot, the carrot also moves forward. In the world, we have an experience of this kind. Promises are made but they are never kept. The world cannot serve us the goods that it intends to purvey through the temptations that it injects into us through our sense organs. The mind, which is a subservient slave, as it were, of our senses, acquiesces in the wrong reports that the senses give that the world is presentable and it is going to bring heavenly joy when we come in contact with it. But this presentation is false. It is a camouflage, a phantasm, a will-o-the-wisp; it is mirage water. It is like the horizon appearing to be only two kilometres away from us so that we can touch it; but when we move toward it we find that the horizon recedes and it is as far away as it was earlier. However many kilometres we move is immaterial. So is this world. It is very near – very, very near and dear to us, as if we can have anything that we want. But, we will never get it. We will be made to feel that we are getting what we want, but we will really get nothing but sorrow – pinpricks and an exhaustion wearing out the whole body and the sense organs, ending finally in decay and death. Evil comes, therefore, in two ways. There may be other reasons also for this dual presentation of evil.
The epics, by their heroic diction, stimulate our feelings and sometimes make us war-like. This is especially so in the case of the Iliad and the Mahabharata, which bring to the surface of our waking consciousness certain submerged potentialities, all which have to come to the light of day. There should be nothing inside us which we cannot actually perceive with our eyes.
It is necessary for the religious student to know what is inside himself. It is not enough if we see the world outside. It is necessary to see what is inside. There sometimes appears that there is nothing inside. Everything seems to be okay and fine, but a careful investigation into the inner composition of the psyche will reveal that it has fears, hopes, expectations, frustrations, potentialities for future actions, intense affections and intense hatreds. They are all inside us. They are like little evil genies sitting cosily in the corners of our unconscious mind and germinating into action when the occasion for it demands.
As a good psychoanalyst would work, so the Epics and the Puranas work. These speak in a friendly way, and that is why I said they come under the category of the Suhrit Samhita. “Once upon a time there was a great sage called Vasishtha. He had an encounter with Visvamitra. Visvamitra was a great sage. There was a great Lord called Rama. There was Sri Krishna. There was Harischandra. He did this. This happened. Why do we not also do that?” This is a friendly chat, as it were, without having the sting of the unpleasant authority that is characteristic of the earlier codified texts of legalistic interpretation and significance.
Apart from that, the Epics and Puranas – the heroic poems and the mythological enunciations in these texts – bring out the potentials of human feelings. Feeling is stronger, many a time, than rational understanding. Logically we accept everything that is said in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Smritis but our feelings many a time resent it. It is impossible for us to obey these instructions from the bottom of our heart. But the heart has to be there if the work is to be executed perfectly. Where the feeling of the heart is not there, we are also not there. That is to say, if we perform a work or a ritual or any kind of worship even, ourselves not being present in it, it is as good as it having not been done at all. Unwillingly done work is not work – that is, it is a work mechanically conducted by the reflex actions of the physical limbs but not with the heart or the feeling of a person.
We have to love God with a feeling from the heart and not merely as a logical deduction that follows from philosophical consideration. We concluded that there should be divinities. Gods in heaven must be there, and the Almighty has to be there because it is impossible to account for the varying phenomena of the world unless such an authority is accepted. God has to be, in order that there may be sense and feeling in the world. There is a philosophical acceptance, no doubt, but what do our feelings say? The feelings have their own inner grumblings and rumbling tension arising from the absence of opportunities provided for the basic instincts of human nature, which is partly human, of course, and also partly animal.
When we have risen from the lower level to the upper levels in the process of evolution, we do not completely sever our connections with the lower levels. Something of the tail end of the earlier stage remains when we go up. Sometimes we are like stones; sometimes we are like trees and plants, and our behaviour is purely biological; sometimes we are instinct-ridden, like animals. Sometimes we are human, of course – very compassionate, very understanding, very sociable and very cooperative. That is our human character. But we are also resentful, very selfish, cut and dry in our approach, very pungent in our speech, and barbed-like in our feelings. That also we can be. That is the animal nature. And we are immensely hungry and thirsty sometimes; our stomach burns with appetite. At that time all affection goes; all consideration for people also dies because the stomach is burning with appetite, with hunger and thirst. This is also a biological instinct. We brought it with us when we came. It does not mean that the tree has gone, the animal has gone, etc., when we become human beings. We are partly trees, partly animals, and partly bricks and stones, also.
So the ascent of the human spirit to God-consciousness, which is the aim of religious instruction, is to also take into consideration all the potentials. They have to be brought up into the surface of human consciousness. We should not be unconsciously stone, unconsciously trees, unconsciously animals; we should be consciously that. When there are potentials in us that are undesirable in comparison with human nature, they are to be brought before the daylight of human understanding so that we can see our own selves openly and publicly in the light of the sun, as it were, and not search for them in the darkness of the ignorance of the heart. The Puranas have effectively dealt a blow to these inner rumblings of unfulfilled desires, and as a friend speaks to a friend they tell us how we have to conduct ourselves and the manner in which our psychic potentialities can be brought out.
When we read about the lives of kings, heroes and prophets, and about the lives of incarnations and deities, and so on – even of demons, as it is delineated in the Epics and the Puranas – we practically become them, for the time being, by an en rapport association with that about which we are reading, as it happens when we witness a good dramatic performance or even a movie. We get changed. A cathartic action takes place in our psyche when that which we like is presented very poignantly before us, and it becomes completely overt. Many a time our affections are hidden on account of social taboos. They are brought out very perspicaciously in the presentations of dramatic actions.
This is the case with the Epics and the Puranass, which are dramas written by the ancient masters, where evil that is dark and affection which is persistent are both presented vividly before us and we see ourselves, as it were, by an externalised projection of our own psyche in the personalities that act in the drama. We vibrate in harmony to the music and the gesticulation. We nod our head, our eyes shed tears, and our whole body vibrates. Did you have this kind of feeling? Did you have this kind of reaction in your mind when you read the Ramayana for instance, or the Mahabharata? It titillates you, it throbs you, it energises you, it enraptures you. It makes you a completely different person because, for the time being, you are Yudhishthira. You feel like crying by the observation of the righteousness that has gone to the extreme in a personality like Yudhishthira. By the indomitable strength of Bhima, you become like an animal – that is, like an elephant, as it were – when you go on seeing, again and again, the portrait and the actions of Bhima. The dexterity, the wisdom, the agility and the success of Arjuna, the divinity of Bhagavan Sri Krishna, Rama’s greatness, and also the epics of the West that I mentioned, all present actually in a visible form, in a concrete presentation, as it were, all that is inside us.
The Epics and the Puranas have this specific function to perform – namely, to bring out our psychic potentials into overt action. That is to say, we must physically see what is inside us. It can be seen by actual dramatic enactment in a theatre. But no theatre can be larger than the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, and the actors there exhaust every potentiality. The hundreds of personalities about whom we read in epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata or even the Vishnu Purana or Srimad Bhagavata, etc., complete the list of all the possible potentialities and expressions of human nature. We become cleansed completely, as it were, after the study of these Epics.
Very few of us might have read them. We read only abridgements, précis, etc., and we know some little titbits or episodes of these Epics. They should be read in their entirety. We will feel that we have been completely washed, in and out. Also, God who was a distant authority, high in the heavens, is made to come down to the level of a real beloved Sri Krishna with his Radha, or Rama and Lakshmana who are the well-wishers of people.
The purpose of these Suhrit Samhitas, or the Epics and the Puranas particularly, is to make God an affectionate object. The worship of God is an act of love that we manifest in our personal life. It is not an instruction coming from an authority or a boss that we are obeying – as is the case with the Smritis and the Vedic Samhitas – which is a different matter altogether. We do it, but that is not enough because our feelings are drying up inside while our understanding is enhancing itself in philosophical considerations. The feelings cannot dry up. They will be like dry seeds, ready to manifest one day or the other, to our own detriment, if they are not taken care of intelligently.
Therefore, the great sages who were the masters of religious instruction thought it proper to also bring out the feelings of the human being in religious awakening. God should be a friend, philosopher and guide, and an object of beauty. Do we consider God as a beautiful person? Has anybody thought over this? God is a dread, a Justice of the highest court. He is a legal enactor. He is a person who imposes Himself on others. Do we like such a person? For fear of consequences, we may like that person; but fear of consequence is not really our whole-hearted submission. God is not merely power and authority, but also beauty and attraction.
The fact that we relegate God only to the realm of power and authority and completely ignore His beauty and attraction is a peculiar stigma, we should say, in the presentation of proper religion. Religion becomes painful, bitter, difficult to practise, and we have no time for it, generally speaking; it is somehow or other reluctantly undertaken as a kind of necessary evil. This should not be the attitude. It is an attraction that pulls, it is so beautiful and grand, and millions of full moons cannot compare with the beauty of the face of God. Some of these facets have been brought out in the Srimad Bhagavad Mahapurana where is described the grandeur and the beauty and the attraction of the avatara Bhagavan Sri Krishna.
We cannot imagine God as a beautiful person because we have been brainwashed into the feeling that He is an authority. He is a creator, He is a power, and He insists on what He thinks is right, whether we like it or not. This kind of idea has gone into our head wrongly. God is a compassionate mother: mata dhata pitamahah. He is the supporter, and kind like a mother, though He is very strict like a father. Not only that – apart from His being the abode of truth and goodness, He is also beautiful.
The three values of life are supposed to be embodied in the great values called truth, goodness and beauty – i.e., philosophical accuracy, ethical confirmation and aesthetic beauty. All these three should be blended together in order that something be finally acceptable. If it is philosophically justifiable but ethically not good, that would not be complete. Ethically good but philosophically not acceptable is also not good. If both are there but it is not attractive, then also it is not good. The Puranas present a picture of God before us as ultimate truth, ultimate ethicality, morality and justice, and the greatest attraction, beauty and taste. Raso vai sah: God is tasty, nectar-like, honey. We can drink Him. Who can think of God like this? Thayumanavar, a great Tamil Saint, sang “ananda tene: O Honey of bliss!” This is how we have to cry to God. Not “O Lord, controller of the heavens!” or “O Justice of the Supreme Court, the Terror!” This is not necessarily the way of looking at God. “O Honey that I can drink!” “O Milk that flows!” “O Heart of my heart!” “O Apple of my eyes!” “O Beauty of beauties!” The Bhagavata, the Epics and the Puranas have done great justice to bring out these potentials of human beings where we well up in the totality of our personality and we cease to be that little potential of animal and vegetable. We become completely human. Not only that, but the divine potentialities also are brought out in the Suhrit Samhitas.
Much more can be said about these Epics and Puranas. Every student of religion should read these epics. Not merely the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – even the western Eddas, Aeniads or the Iliad or the Odyssey or Milton’s Paradise Lost - all these are wonderful things which will bring your heart in consonance with your philosophical understanding. An intuitive grasp will be generated in your personality and you will know that religion is not merely an occupation, or a performance, or a way of living among many other possible ways of living; it is the only way possible for living in the world. That is the only manner in which you have to conduct yourself. It is en rapport of your personality with the Ultimate Reality of life which is the best in every form, every way.
The Srimad Bhagavata Purana excels the other Puranas in this respect because it gives a complete picture of the whole of the creative process including the avataras of Narayana, which are about twenty-four in number, and also the genealogy of the rulers of the Solar and the Lunar lines, concluding with the end of the world itself. The Srimad Bhagavata is considered as one of the noblest of religious texts available in the world.
Vidyavatam bhagavate pariksha is another viewpoint of the Srimad Bhagavata. It is not merely rasa, or taste; it is also a literature that tests the ability of a scholar. If you want to know whether a person is really scholarly or not, give him the Srimad Bhagavata Purana and ask him to expound it. It is difficult not only because of the complexity and toughness of the Sanskrit style but also because of the implications, the profundities and the hidden meanings behind the great verses. The pinnacle of the Srimad Bhagavata is reached in the tenth skanda where the threefold phase of Sri Krishna’s life – the Vrindavana lila, the Mathura lila and the Dwaraka lila – is described. The Kurukshetra lila is mentioned very little in the Bhagavata. For that, you have to go to the Mahabharata. These will tell you how a perfect gentleman, how a perfect hero, a perfect yogi, a perfect householder, a perfect sannyasin, a perfect god lives in the world. Purana Purushottama, the complete incarnation, is delineated there – not because we have to hear the story of the great man, but because we have to mould ourselves into the possibility of becoming such a kind of person. He is the example of the great superman of the East; and, man is to become superman. You, I, everybody – one day or the other we have to become supermen. We cannot exist merely as men crawling on the earth like insects.
Why are these great stories of the power of Rama, the greatness of Krishna, the goodness of Yudhisthira, the strength of Bhima, and the agility of Arjuna told to us? We have to become like that, so that we become perfect – expert in action like Arjuna, strong like Bhima, good like Yudhisthira, great like Krishna, and indomitable like Rama. The Epics and the Puranas tell us these stories in a touching way, breaking the cords of our hearts and making us religious even without our wanting it. Such is the greatness of the second category of scriptures in India, the Suhrit Samhita, apart from the well-known Prabhu Samhita which consists of two aspects, as I mentioned – the Veda Samhitas and the Smritis. And in other countries also there is the Torah and the Talmud in the Jewish religion, the Christian dogma and its mysticism, the original traditional Shia and Sunni and Sufism in Islam, and there are many other aspects of this kind of dual presentation of the traditional and mystical aspects of religion. India has every aspect of religion and is considered to be a repository of religious consciousness of all these, blended in abundance; and as I particularly mentioned to you, the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, together with the Srimad Bhagavata Purana, will fill you with joy.
Religion has to fill you with joy; otherwise, it is not religion. If somehow or the other, unwillingly, you have to get up in the morning and wipe your eyes and take a cold bath because it is told in the scripture, this is not religion. It is joy; it is good: “It does me good; I am happy; I am healthy; it is my duty. I invoke God in the early morning hours. Suryanarayana is rising in the east; prostration to Him! He is the life and the soul and the well-being of everybody, the prana sakti, the very prana, the life breath of people, rising in the east! Prostration to Him!” Joy, happiness, bliss, freedom, release from tension of every kind and making you a healthy individual both inwardly and outwardly is the function of religion.