by Swami Krishnananda
If you remember all the things that I told you during these days, that will suffice, provided you are able to keep all the necessary details in your mind. Today I shall confine myself to a brief statement of the historical development of religious consciousness in India – how, in this country, people found themselves in need of a vision of life and developed a sense of what is called religious awareness.
The first impulse that arises in a thinking mind is the perception of a wonder that seems to be characterising all things in creation. You cannot understand how things are happening at all. Why does the sun rise; why does the sun set; why are there seasons; why is there rainfall; why is there heat; why is there cold; why is there summer; why is there winter? Everything is a mystery; nobody can understand what all this is.
Yet, it seems to be a systematic organisation of nature. Things do not happen in a confused manner. So precise seems to be the working of things that you can predict future events mathematically. This sense of wonder arises from the feeling of the incomprehensibility of things in the world. How is it possible that things should happen in the manner in which they are happening? A happening is always attributed to a cause that brings about the happening. The cause-and-effect relationship is ingrained in the very principle of thinking itself. When we see something, we at once conclude that there should be a cause behind this appearance or phenomenon projected before our perception.
The first phase of religion may be said to be a recognition of there being something behind the operations of nature. Everything is a mystery. So, every mysterious occurrence or phenomena should have some cause behind it. There is a cause behind the dawn, there is a cause behind the sunset, there is a cause behind everything. As the phenomena are multifarious, the simple, inquisitive mind of the human being attributed many causes behind many operations, many individual significant phases of human observation. Inasmuch as this cause is above all that is happening in this world, and the causes seem to be many in number because the effects are also so many, the feeling of man presented a picture of a transcendent existence of these causes. The causes are not in this world. The strengths of operation are in a higher realm of the ultimate causes of things, and events take place here as if puppets are dancing.
Because of the imperishable nature of the causes attributed to these controlling factors of phenomena, they are also considered to be immortal. Because in the world, everything that is moving is perishable, and nothing is permanent, its cause should be something which is not impermanent. The perishable nature of the phenomena gave way to the feeling of the imperishability of the causes; and the causes are intelligent things because without intelligence, operation of any kind is not possible. Such an intelligent cause behind the occurrences in the world, transcendentally operating, is a god – a divinity – and the realm which is above this world, where these divinities, or gods, are residing, is considered to be heaven. Here, religion starts. We worship gods who are in heaven.
In India the record of such an occurrence is in the Rig Veda Samhita or, generally, all the Veda Samhitas. There are prayers offered to the animating principles behind every occurrence in the phenomena of the world – thousands and thousands of gods everywhere. Every god is worshipped as a necessary controlling power behind everything that is happening anywhere. There can be any number of gods. Without understanding the significance of this stage of religion, historians of religion wrongly designate this stage as polytheism. Polytheism is not a proper word because it has a slight touch of something undesirable, and nobody likes to use the word 'polytheistic' in regard to this stage of religion where it is an honest recognition of the gods in heaven. No one who worships a god in heaven thinks he is worshipping a polytheistic individual. This is only a historical peculiarity of people.
This is a very long course of history, to describe which may take several days. Anyway, to mention briefly, the religious awareness which arose in this fashion went further and further, into deeper and deeper forms of this acceptance of there being gods; and wonder gave rise to a kind of doubt. It is said that philosophy begins with wonder. It also can begin with some doubt about the vision that originally one has attained. It is perfectly all right to believe that there must be many divinities, but that is the result of the wonder in perception. The doubt then arises: if there are so many gods, in what way is each one connected to the other? If each god is totally independent of the other, there is no one single, central force for controlling all phenomena. There was a feeling that perhaps they act together, as members in a meeting jointly act to come to certain conclusions. A group idea of gods arose; so many groups of gods are there – many gods, group gods. Otherwise, if each god is totally independent, there would be no way of coming to a consensus in regard to anything. It is just like it is necessary for us to hold a meeting to come to any conclusion. We cannot do things independently without coming into conflict with another person. Thus, this group idea arose in the vision of religion.
But that also was not satisfying because the idea of a grouping of divinities does not finally satisfy the doubt as to how one group can be connected to another group. If one cannot be related to another, and a group is necessary, then something else is necessary to relate one group to another group. There must be a central government; otherwise, there will be many little principalities of gods, and things will not go on properly, and it cannot be explained logically. Slowly this idea arose to the conception of a single yet transcendent God. It is a great advance in the development of religious consciousness to feel that there must be only one God. But the idea that God must be away from the world does not easily leave the mind, because how can He be inside the world which is so bad, so perishable, with so much disturbance everywhere? So the transcendent idea of God persisted, and it persists even today. It cannot easily leave us as long as we see things in the manner we do.
Well, this is, in some way, the foundation of religion. But, we cannot recognise the greatness of something and just keep quiet. We have to express our admiration and respect for what we adore by some gesture, some method of performance. When we admire, when we want to worship something that is great, we automatically feel that there should be some kind of gesture from our part. "Oh, wonderful! I adore you! I adore you! Wonderful! Be seated. What can I do for you?" These feelings become gestures, developing into what is called ritual – ritual of religion.
These rituals, which became necessary in one stage of the development of religion subsequent to the Veda Samhitas, are recorded in another set of scriptures, called the Brahmanas. This 'brahmana' does not mean Brahmin, the caste; it is a textbook, a section in the Vedas, which describes all kinds of performances, rituals, sacrifices, etc., to please these gods. It is a gesture. Mere thought, mere prayer, mere adoration in the mind was the characteristic of the earliest phase of religion in the Samhitas; and it then became a ritualistic expression, in a gesture, in the second phase. But when the love for a thing, admiration for a thing, the acceptance of the wonder and majesty of a thing rises to the height of recognition, your heart starts operating in a different manner: "I admire, I love and I am deeply concerned." When you think always of that thing – this God, this Divinity, this wonderful thing, the mind says, "Mere gesture, mere ritual, mere outward performance is not sufficient. I have also to think deeply about this great thing, because thinking about it gives joy. Merely moving the hands and feet and doing something ritualistically is not adequate. My mind has to be filled with satisfaction: Oh, I think about that wonderful thing!"
This contemplative state is recorded in the scriptures called the Aranyakas – forest scriptures, and is subsequent to the Brahmanas. In the early days, people who retired from all ritualistic life went to distant places, lived in a sylvan atmosphere and engaged themselves in pure contemplation only – no ritual, and no verbal prayer either. It developed further, deeper, into a total union of the feeling with that which they worshipped. In the Upanishads we have the record of the union of consciousness with that which they loved and considered as the Supreme Being. Here is the fundamental rock bottom of India's religion: the Vedas, the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads.
But, that is not enough for religion. This is a highly specialised form of religious awareness. It has to be expressed in some other way also – by ecstatic expressions in some way or the other. You cannot merely say: "I like you! I adore you! I think of you! I am happy with you! Wonderful!" and then keep quiet. This is a meditation, but still it is not sufficient. You have to be in ecstasy over this matter. This ecstasy, this rapture, this struggle of the soul to express itself in as mighty a way as possible – to express what it feels in its ultimate recognition and acceptance of the Great Reality – took the form of heroic poems, majestic poetry which picturised the historical events in human society as a struggle of the soul to recognise the might and magnificence of God in greater and greater intensity. The more you think about it, the more you feel ecstatic about it – and there is no end for this ecstasy. The more you feel it, the more you want to feel more of it. There is no limit at all for your feeling, for the gesture, the joy, the satisfaction, and the jumping, as it were, of the entire soul within for wanting it expressed in every form of life. We have the great epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – where poetry reaches its limit. The heroism of expression of the soul reaches its farthest limit in epics such as the Mahabharata. Therefore, it is well said that you cannot know the Vedas as they are in themselves, in their true meaning, unless you also know the implication of the epics.
In one of the verses of the Mahabharata, we are told that it would be like killing the Veda itself if we practise a merely theoretical, parrot-like recitation of a its mantras, or imagine that we are thinking it satisfactorily without knowing the implications and suggestions which bring the soul to heights of rapture. With the epics and the Puranas, which are the highlighting factors of human history in a divinised form, these records add a special impetus to the rise of the soul to unending heights. Then only can one know the real meaning of the Veda, because, as I mentioned, originally the Veda mantras were prayers to the Almighty God in various forms. But, they are not only that much. The presence of an Almighty Being can be recognised through external perceptivity, internal feeling, as the operating force in human society and the law supreme that controls everything. All facets are included in the recognition of the God of the Vedas. So, the epics and Puranas came later on as an expatiation, in more detail, in a more acceptable form to human sentiment and feeling. That is a further development of religion – Vedas, Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads and the epics. The Bhagavadgita is a part of the Mahabharata.
The historical significance involved in these epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are accentuated further in the eighteen Puranas, some of which are very important. Inasmuch as the total concept of the Absolute is difficult to entertain in the mind, the feelings divided the concept of God into a tripartite recognition as the creator, the preserver and the destroyer, because this is what we see in this world. What does God do? He does not sit quiet, simply gazing. He creates; He destroys; He preserves. So God, in three forms, was conceived as Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The creative force is Brahma, the preservative force is Vishnu and the transforming, evolutionary aspect – we may call it the destroying aspect – is Rudra, Siva. These Puranas are eighteen in number, and six of them are devoted to Brahma and creation, six of them to Vishnu, and six of them to Siva. But, more than that, there are also many other details of historical significance in the Puranas. The Puranas are wonderful; but, they are all in Sanskrit. Many people who do not know Sanskrit cannot know what these Purnanas and the Ramayana and Mahabharata are. Fortunately, today we have English translations of these great texts. The whole of the Mahabharata has been translated into the English language, in twelve volumes; and the Ramayana, of course, is very famous. Everywhere, in every language, the Ramayana can be found.
Still, an inquisitive mind does not keep quiet. It always has to do something. However much you appreciate God, it is not sufficient. You have to appreciate God in many other ways also. Earlier you felt a need to gesticulate and perform rituals to manifest your feelings of devotion to God, and I mentioned these are all described in the Brahmana texts. The very same need was felt once again, later on, in a different fashion altogether. This is the stage of the Agamas and Tantras. They are rituals only, described in a different way altogether from the Brahmanas. The external and exoteric form of the rituals described in the Brahmanas takes an esoteric side in the Agamas and the Tantras, about which I have spoken earlier. This is how religious consciousness went on evolving.