Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


PART III: THE DEVELOPMENT OF RELIGIOUS CONSCIOUSNESS

Chapter 19: The Inklings and Stages of a Higher Presence

The religious consciousness has its meaning in a sense of completeness that one seeks to achieve in life. Difficulties of every kind that one confronts in life, one's helplessness in several things that one has to face almost every day, one's inability to understand why anything around one happens in the way it does, and what are the causes that prevent everyone from attaining in practical existence what one would like to have as things which could remove several inscrutable types of lacunae which one feels in oneself from time to time, raise the basic questions of true religion. Human feeling seems to be made in such a way that one cannot help concluding that there must be some causes behind the workings of Nature. The movement of seasons, the rise of the sun and the moon, the appearance of stars in the sky, the winds and the rains, and several such phenomena that excite a curiosity in man to know more than what he actually knows at present in a state of ignorance of such mysterious factors as those which must be at the back of all things happening in the world, stir the religious impulse within. The seeking of causes of observed effects is ingrained in the very constitution of the human mind. Though some may say that this inherent eagerness of the human mind to find causes of effects is itself an effect of a peculiar structure of its own self, to whose boundaries it is wholly confined, and the very nature of Space and Time which determine the world and all the things that the world contains, yet, it does follow that even within the limits of the mind's operations confining it to a mere observation of phenomena, it is certain that the mind has also, simultaneously, the knowledge that it is limited, without which there would be no sense of limitation at all in one's life. It is this continuous apprehension of the inherent limits within which confined framework the mind has to work that is the reason behind the mind's parallel awareness that these limitations must have been brought about by certain things which must be controlling phenomena and causing phenomena to behave in the way they appear. The sense of a 'higher than oneself' is this incessantly operative compelling power in man, making him feel unhappy all the while and seek ways and means of delving into the realm of the unseen.

The primary impulse coming as a response to these queries arising from the human mind takes the shape of positing a diffused power or influence particularly manifest in unusual and exciting phenomena. Events evoking the perception of some excellence and superior power demand an explanation as to their occurrence, and it lies in the way of the working of some invisible force behind things and events. The stage of religious awareness which is generally known as Animism regards Nature as inwardly filled with certain intelligent spirits, thus making every part of Nature a living act of some hidden purpose and intention. Nothing in Nature is dead or bereft of life. These spirits may be said to be souls embodied in all natural phenomena, countless in number, as the events in Nature are innumerable, defying human understanding. The awe and fear that almost always follow immediately from the recognition of spirits indwelling Nature summon a corresponding feeling of respect and adoration that one feels in regard to these angelic causes working behind Nature. The initial form in which this respect for the 'above' is manifest, in practice is ritual, characteristic of every religious behaviour. There is the need for extending gestures of prayer and worship, which is the shape of all ritual, the details of which vary slightly in accordance with the social patterns and geographical conditions in and through which types of religious adoration arise.

Features known as taboo, totem and fetishism, are generally associated with the earliest forms of religious awakening, taboo meaning the prohibition to go near or come in contact with anything that one regards as endowed with a repelling power or unholy influence, totem being usually an animal connected with a community of people, or even an object so connected, determining the welfare of the community, such as the cow, the peepul tree, or a sacred stone, which are said to be endowed with powers of this kind, and fetish being an object considered as an abode of a superior spirit or power.

The stage which is known as Spiritism considers these indwelling spirits behind Nature as not just lodged in things and phenomena but having the ability to move about and work according to their will, doing good when they are pleased and harm if they are displeased. This stage effloresces into the acceptance of there being many gods in the heavenly world, a stage which historians of religion call Polytheism, in which condition of the religiously oriented mind the spirits behind the different workings of Nature are adored as the powerful gods inhabiting a celestial kingdom above the world superintending directly the phenomena of all creation. In the Veda Samhitas we find Mantras for prayers addressed to different gods. In the Vedas, however, we can find representations of every stage of religion from the initial natural adorations to the highest conceptions of the Absolute. The multitude of gods follows from the fact of the many-sidedness and manifold workings of Nature, each performance or event in Nature being controlled by a soul-force within it, a god working through its embodied form. Many things require many controllers, and they are gods because they are not in this world, their abode being in heaven. The exploits of these gods become the sources of mythology and epics connected with an important stage in the development of religious consciousness. Mankind, even today, is in this stage of religion and we will find no religion in the world without its mythological stories and its epics glorifying vigorously the power and knowledge of its angels and gods. The human mind might feel stifled and find itself in a state of barrenness if mythology and epic are to be removed from the field of religion. Primarily, it is emotion that takes the upper hand in religious practice, and it is this that explains the need for mythology and epic literature. The more you love a thing, the more would you like to glorify it in as many ways as possible. Mythology is the preceding stage of Theology, some features of which we have endeavoured to study earlier.

In a stage which historians call Henotheism, a particular god is considered as the highest god, raised above all other gods in the hierarchy of the pantheon. There is also the grouping of gods (Visvedevas) into a single body of divine power.

Theism is the affirmation of the One God as the transcendent and immanent creator of the universe. The necessity for affirming the Supreme God arises on account of it being necessary to bring the multiple gods into a harmonious relation among them, without which internal coordination the gods would remain as isolated localities of unrelated essences, not excluding even a contending and superseding tendency among them. Since the universe cannot be regarded as consisting of segregated bits of matter and spirit, the need for a universal connecting link arises. The gods cannot be really many, they have to be phases of the operation of the One God. This Great God is proclaimed in ecstatic language of poetry in the Purusha-Sukta, Hiranyagarbha-Sukta, Visvakarma-Sukta, Skambha-Sukta, and Varuna-Sukta of the Veda-Samhitas. The Nasadiya-Sukta of the Rig-Veda affirms an absolute beginning of things, the origin of the universe as being beyond the concepts of even existence and non-existence. Religion is the reaction of the total man to the total reality. There can be only one such Supreme Reality, in which every individual soul, and everything, has to find itself wholly.

The highest form of religion is known as Monism, which overcomes some of the limitations involved in the concept of God as the Supreme Person, which is the way in which Theism defines God. Monism is the affirmation of the Absolute which is above the Personality concept because the concept of the Person cannot be dissociated from the concept of limitation as if in a universe of Space and Time. The Absolute can only be designated as That Which Is. Here the religious consciousness reaches its highest peak of attainment.