Chapter 15: The Development of Religious Consciousness in India
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.
Then there was a necessity felt to establish this truth by logical arguments. Mere feeling was not sufficient. Gesture and articulation by ritual was not adequate. The whole thing had to be logically and satisfactorily proved philosophically. For this purpose, the schools of thought called the Darshanas arose: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. In these also, there is a gradational rise. It is not that each school says whatever it wants. There is a continuity of thought even in the Darshanas, or the schools of thought. For instance, there is a primitive, logical acceptance of the truths of God, world and soul in the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika systems. These schools, the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika, which can be clubbed together into a single phase of logical thinking, say that God is transcendent. He is an efficient cause, but not a material cause. Like a carpenter standing outside the tools and the things that he made, God stands above. The individuals are manifold.
In a purely empirical fashion, the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika take into consideration the multiplicity of individual souls; and the transcendent creator, totally unconnected with creation, operates in the world as a mechanic operates a machine or a carpenter makes a table, a chair, etc. This is, in a way, a very basic way of thinking in a so-called logical fashion to justify how the Vedas, Upanishads, Tantras, etc., have been helpful. But that is not satisfactory because it is difficult to believe that God is so far away, unconnected with this world, and that so many people are unconnected among themselves. Everything is in chaos, as it were.
The Samkhya philosophy took up this argument in a different way altogether and said it cannot be so, that gods are somewhere and people are distanced and unconnected. There are only two things in the universe – consciousness and matter. There is nothing else. You may call it God or whatever you like. You feel an awareness inside you. The consciousness which feels that there is something outside calls that thing matter, which is outside consciousness. That which recognises this material existence is consciousness. Technically, the Samkhya calls this consciousness which apprehends material existence as purusha. Purusha does not mean man. It simply means the positive principle of awareness. As a negative principle it is perceived as prakriti. Due to a particular conjunction of consciousness and matter, everything takes place, and there is no separate God outside. There is no necessity for this because it is possible to explain the whole drama of creation by a coming together, in various ways, of consciousness and matter.
This explanation was also not satisfactory, because who brings about the union of consciousness and matter? How does it happen? Consciousness cannot stand outside matter and then attempt to get united with it in some way or the other. The union of consciousness and matter is not possible unless there is an operator transcending both – an umpire who judges the action and operation of two things. Two people cannot resolve their conflict; a third person is necessary to make a judgment.
Thus yoga philosophy, apart from its practical techniques of meditation, etc. recognised a God who dispenses justice and sees to it that there is meaning behind the coming together of consciousness and matter, purusha and prakriti – a deistic God, a God who does not have any practical connection with the operations of prakriti and purusha. That deity was envisaged – a deus ex machina, as it is called, a convenient requirement that was posited – though it was not seen then what kind of connection this divinity can have with the operations of consciousness and matter. It was just a position maintained to get over the difficulties created by the earlier schools of Nyaya and Vaisheshika. Even that was not satisfactory. They had to go further.
Suddenly, a state arose when the human mind reverted to the old concept of many gods. The religious awareness, the historical development of religious consciousness, does not seem to be a unilateral movement on a straight path – walking, as it were, along a paved road. It was moving; there was progression. There was also a kind of retrogression because of the suspicions of the mind which arise in any kind of adventure in life. So, once again, there was a reversal of the thinking mind and it came back to the original requirement dictated by the Brahmana scriptures. A logical approach was envisaged to justify the rituals and performances of sacrifice, etc., that were originally dictated by the Brahmanas in terms of the many gods in heaven. This once again arose, only in a different way; logic was added to it.
This logical acceptance of the original concept of the Brahmanas in respect of the divinities in heaven became the Mimamsa Shastra. It is also called Karma Mimamsa. Mimamsa means an enquiry into the nature of Truth. This enquiry took the form of assuming that there are many gods in heaven and they have to be worshipped – the very same position that was maintained earlier in the Brahmanas, only with a justification added to it by logical arguments. This did not take the feelings too far. It was just a halting place and there seemed to be something more, which position was taken up by the Vedanta school. What is the use of reverting once again, though logically, to the original position which has been transcended?
The Vedanta is actually the Upanishads themselves. Difficult are the Upanishads to understand. The Brahma Sutras attempted to codify certain statements of the Upanishads in order that things may become clear, but that did not work well because many commentaries were written on the explanation itself, which is the Brahma Sutra – and we are nowhere, finally. So logically, further foundation had to be laid for intellectual satisfaction, and for the satisfaction of the human reasoning, by developments of the schools of thought which ultimately, in a group, are called the Vedanta.
Any school that considers God as the ultimate reality is called Vedanta. The goal of life is the realisation of God. If any school accepts this principle, that can be called Vedanta. But for various reasons the schools differed from one another in accepting that God-realisation is the ultimate goal. These reasons were: "Maybe what you say is correct. Let us realise God. We accept that realisation of God is ultimately the goal of life. But, where is God?" There the differences arose. Once again the old habit of thinking crept into the minds of people. One said that God is transcendent only and He can be reached only by deep affection and love for Him. You cannot satisfy somebody merely by rituals. Your heart has to go with it. This is the Bhakti Marga of Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, Ballavha, Krishna Chaitanya Deva, and many others.
The Advaita school of thought is something quite different. It tries to unify all these principles. Bhakti is necessary; it is perfectly right. God may be transcendent, in one sense of the term. He is also immanent, in another sense of the term. Love of God is the way to reach Him because without affection you cannot contact Him, really speaking. All these are accepted by Advaita Vedanta; yet it says there is something more than all these things – namely, there is no point in bringing into the vision of perfection any duality, any discrepancy, any conflict, in any fashion whatsoever, such that there cannot be a distinction even between God and the soul, because if distinction is maintained, you are once again reverting to the old concept of duality, multiplicity, etc.
While all the dualities converge into the perception of a single unitary action of the universe, there is a doubt about the relationship between the human soul and God. That doubt also has to go. In what way are you concerned with God? Are you totally outside, or inside? Are you a servant of God? Are you a friend of God? What kind of person are you? These are all human considerations transplanted from the earth and placed in the kingdom of God. The human feelings do not leave us even when we logically argue things. After all, what is logic? It is only man-made thinking. So Advaita gave the final touch to the superstructure of logical thinking and concluded that there cannot be distinction of any kind, anywhere, between anything. There must be a total, absolute unitariness, Being itself, Existence, pure and simple, which is conscious of itself. It is ultimate freedom, therefore. Satchitananda is its nature. That alone is. Nothing else can be. This is Advaita's point.
Still, some deviations from the original Agamas and Tantras arose in a religious fashion – not in a ritualistic fashion, but in a specialised form of Agamas known as Vaishnava Agamas, Shaiva Agamas and Shakta Agamas. It was not enough to posit only Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Later on it also became necessary to concede a power that is inherent in these gods – and each god had a shakti, or a force. In common Puranic style the shakti, or the power of Brahma, is called Saraswati; the shakti, or power, of Vishnu is Lakshmi; the shakti of Siva is Durga, Parvati. It was felt that this shakti is inseparable from the god who wields it because you cannot have your power somewhere, and sit somewhere else. When you say you have power, you are identical with that power. It is only a conceptual distinction; the actual power cannot stand outside you. When you say fire is hot, the heat is not outside fire. It is fire only. Likewise, Siva-Shakti samyoga, Lakshmi-Narayan samyoga, etc. were contemplated in the Agamas, which are known as the Shaiva Agamas, Vaishnava Agamas and Shakta Agamas, to bring to a halt any further discussion in the matter of religion – to say, once and for all, everything about religious awareness throughout the process of its development, right from the beginning till the modern day.
Here you have the whole history of religious awareness in Bharata-varsha – in India.