The Development of Religious Consciousness
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 1: The Awakening of Religious Consciousness

A dissatisfaction with prevailing conditions arises by a comparison and contrast with an ideal which is supposed to be promising full satisfaction. This principle, this finding, may be regarded as the origin of what we may call the religious consciousness.

We have to draw a distinction between religion and religious consciousness. To give a popular, homely example, electricity is a common operative force which can heat, which can freeze, which can cause motion and perform several functions. The variegated differences in these technological operations do not make electricity itself a multiplicity in its constitution. The electric power is a compact, integrated operation which can act in many ways according to the medium through which it is made to express itself. So is the case with religion and what I would like to call the religious consciousness.

There are many religions in this world. All of you must be knowing the nomenclature of these religions. The differences that we observe among the various religions of the world arise due to factors such as the geographical, cultural, ethnic, and anthropological backgrounds of people in whose proximity these performances, gestures and activities called religion originate. Religions are conditioned forms of the religious consciousness, just as the technological activities of an electric current are conditioned operations of an otherwise single force called power.

We have to deeply consider what all this means, finally, in our life. What are we asking for? This question cannot be fully answered by any person. Ask anyone, “What do you want? What are you seeking? What is it that you need?” Though everyone knows that there is a want, a requirement, and a need, no one can explicitly describe the nature of this requirement fully. No one can answer the question, “What do you want?”

It is surprising that while we know there are various needs felt in our life, we cannot name them. We just nod our heads a hundred times and cannot say anything about our actual requirements, because these requirements are like chameleons, changing their colours and contours under different conditions that we pass through in the historical process of time. It is not that we want anything in particular always, but we need everything at one time or the other. We do not want anything particularly at all times, but we require everything under different conditions in the process of history.

This is the reason why we are unable to give a compact and concentrated answer to the question of what do we want. However, if we go into the psychology of this phenomenon of a dissatisfaction with things in general, we will realise that it arises because of the perception of something beyond us and above us. It is only when we recognise the presence of something that is more than what we are that we are dissatisfied with the present condition of existence.

There is something above us, more than us, transcending us, and which has a larger dimension than our present personality. The presence of such a thing, vaguely felt in the mind, disturbs everyone’s heart because the feelings describe this condition as a contrast between what is and what ought to be. The ‘ought’ is a disturbing factor. The ‘must’ and the ‘must be’ are always interfering with what is and what we are experiencing. How does this ‘ought’ arise in the consciousness of a person? Why should we say, “it ought to have been like this”, “it must be like this”, or “it should be like this”? Why do such ideas arise in our minds? Why are we not content with whatever is the present state of affairs?

There is a double personality in each individual. This is not known to any person. Each one of us belongs to two different realms of existence, as it were. On the one hand, we seem to be inhabitants of this world, conditioned and constrained by the laws operating here, which compel us to behave and act in a particular prescribed manner. But anything that conditions is detested. No one likes to be restrained by any kind of regulation, because that regulating principle stands above the one who is restrained and conditioned. What we cannot tolerate is the presence of something above which conditions us, commands us, and obliges us. We do not like to be obliged. These words are painful. Why should I be obliged to anybody? That makes me a dependent on someone else. Dependence is death, virtually; independence is life. Sarvaṁ paravaśaṁ duḥkhaṁ sarvam ātmavaśaṁ sukham, says the Manusmriti: Self-dependence is freedom and happiness, and dependence on somebody else is veritable hell. Under no circumstance would we like to subject ourselves to the commands of another, because that would not be freedom.

There is, for instance, legal freedom granted to us by the nation to which we belong. If we obey the laws of the constitution of a particular nation we are given a freedom, but it is a freedom conditioned by the obligation on the part of the individual to obey these restraints prescribed by the constitution. So there is, even in the granting of freedom, a conditioning factor. There is an ‘if’ or a ‘whereas’ that is behind even the freedom granted. We can walk on the road freely. Nobody objects to that, but there is an if and a condition even in using the road. There is even a rule how to walk on the road. We are free, but not entirely free. We are told, “It must be like this.” We are told that we must speak only in this way. It does not mean that we can say anything to people. We have to do things in this manner only. We have the freedom to do, and to act; in that sense we are liberated individuals. But the freedom is conditioned by a law that it is possible only under these circumstances.

Every individual is free. Put a question to your own self: Is it possible for every person to be wholly free? For all people in the world to be entirely free would be like asking for an infinitude in each person. The whole is the infinite. Would you like to be infinitely free or finitely free? You do not like the word ‘finite’. You would like to be unbounded in your freedom. But the very existence of another person beside you limits your existence.

Thus, the freedom that we can have, and are supposed to be enjoying, is to the extent that we are able to give this freedom to another also; so the obligation on our part to give freedom to another limits our freedom, so we are not entirely free. The asking for perfect freedom is a chimera; it is a hobgoblin; it does not exist. Life looks wretched, if this is the state of affairs. We can never have real freedom. Politically, socially, in every manner, we are restrained, with the camouflage of a satisfaction that under these obligations we are free.

People have no time to think along these lines. We have to get on somehow. “Chalta hai” [so it goes], we say. We are actually dragging on our life every day, and not really living it. We are getting on, as they say. Getting on in life is somehow a kind of satisfaction. “I’m getting on.” But we cannot really be happy with simply getting on. We should not be vegetating. Trees and plants also exist; they grow, they multiply. We do not want to live like that. We want a sensible, meaningful life. Here, another question arises: What is the meaning of “a sensible and meaningful life”? Are we now living a meaningless life? Here is the philosophical profundity and the in-depth secret of our personality coming up to the surface of our awareness, telling us that human beings are really wiseacres. Vainglorious, egoist consciousness prevails in their minds. Each one pats himself or herself on the back: “Things are getting on all right.” But, it is not going on all right.

When a pain is removed by a particular treatment, that treatment may cause another pain, for which we may require a second treatment. Philosophy is the capacity of a person to investigate into the deepest roots of nature and the in-depth constitution of existence itself. The ultimate cause, which is the determining factor of all effects and phenomena in life, has to be probed into. Philosophy is the search for the ultimate causes of everything, not the tentative causes. Why does it rain? It has a cause. The heat of the Sun converts the sea water into vapour, and the wind blows in some particular direction, converting the vapour into water particles, and then due to ecological laws, rain falls. This is a tentative answer as to the cause of rainfall. By why should the Sun be so interested in vapourising the water of the ocean? Why should the wind cooperate in this work? Why should the water particles collide and create lightning and thunder? What is the meaning of all this? This requires a further probe into the causes behind these apparently clear causes.

There is a cause behind every cause. There is a concatenation of causal factors, one behind the other. We cannot even know who is the origin of our parentage. Who are your parents? So-and-so. Who are the parents of these people? Somebody. Who are their parents? Go on like that. Let us find out from where this heritage starts—who was the first parent, from whom the lineage began—until we reach our immediately visible parents, through whom we appear to have been born into this world. Even here there is failure. We cannot even know the origin of our parentage.

We cannot even know why our name is what it is. Who told us that our name is what it is? We cannot give a clear answer. “My name is this.” But how do we know that? Here again, we are caught in a dilemma. Somebody in our childhood pumped some sound into our ears: “Your name is this, your name is this.” The child goes on hearing this again and again, and accepts that the name is this. So, the name that we are associated with comes from an action that is outside ourselves; therefore, the name cannot be our intrinsic quality. Likewise are the difficulties in finding out the causes of things.

We generally wonder at the phenomena of nature. We can explain nothing. Why does the Sun rise in a particular direction? Why do the planets revolve around the Sun? What are the stars? How far away are they from us? What is the role that the Earth plays in this family of the revolving planets? Why does one planet not fall on another planet? Why does the Sun not fall on our head? We do not know. We cannot say. We do not speak about these things.

According to modern discoveries, everything is in a state of motion. It is not merely that the Earth is rotating on its axis and revolving around the Sun; all the planets are doing the same thing in this organisation called the Solar System, which in its totality is also supposed to be rushing forward, onward, in some direction, together with the Milky Way—in the direction of something which we cannot easily decipher.

There is some other pull causing this perpetual activity in the cosmos, in the astronomical universe. Some centre of gravity of the whole cosmos is compelling everything, right from the atom to the galaxies, to move in a particular manner. What is this compelling centre? People say it is a centre which is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere. Every point is a centre of the universe. It is not far away, above us. The centre of a circle is a little away from the periphery or the circumference, but this centre is not away from the circumference. Every point in the circumference is also a centre. If we touch anything, we are touching the centre of the universe. Philosophically, this centre is designated as the Atman, or the soul of things. The soul is not somewhere, because it is the centre. The soul is not only in the human being; there is a soul in everything. Even the atomic structure, which integrates itself into an organisation, requires a pulling, pivotal centre, call it by any name. We may consider it as a soul.

Our personality, our physical body, is constituted of little pieces of physiological cells, one different from the other. We seem to be like a house constructed out of many bricks, but we do not feel that we are a house made with many bricks. We never feel that there are an infinite number of cells which constitute this totality of our individuality. The house does not know that its inner components are diversified items like bricks, cement, mortar, iron, etc.

If we can imagine that the house has a consciousness of its own, so is the case with our own selves. Why do we feel a unity and an integration in our personality, and never feel that we are made up of diversified elements? This is the centre which operates in every discreet particle, and obliges this so-called discreet particle to harmonise itself with the centre—which is everywhere, to repeat. Our soul does not sit somewhere, in some location within our body. It is an indescribable centripetal force that compels every organ and every cell to subject itself to its centre, so that the whole body is a centre only.

We are not made up of particles; we are made up of a totality of centres. As we cannot conceive a totality of centres because centres cannot be more than one, we are flabbergasted even by thinking that we are existing as a total, integrated human being. This is why we cannot understand what we are made of. There is a tremendous mystery operating in everything, even in a plant, a tree, a leaf, and in the formation of a fruit. Everything is a mystery.

It is said by historians of religion that early man wondered at creation. What is all this? Every day we see something. There is sunrise and sunset. I asked a little boy: “In the morning you see the Sun on this side, and in the evening it goes to that side and sinks somewhere. How does it suddenly come back to the east in the morning?” The boy naively replied, “When we are fast asleep, it must jump back to the east, so that without our knowledge, it finds itself in the east.” This is a very nice answer.

The wonderment of creation arose in the initial stages of the very birth of human individuality. Philosophy is supposed to originate in wonder or in doubt. In Greece, for instance, philosophy commenced with wonder. The wonder of creation evoked the minds of people into an investigation of the causes of these wonderful phenomena. There were so many Greek philosophers, and each one had something to say. All were right in their statements, but not entirely right. There was a gradual development of thought through the history of philosophy, yet it was not finally satisfying.

We may wonder at a thing and imagine that there must be a cause behind this wonderful phenomenon. The idea that there should be a cause behind every phenomenon is, again, some peculiar faculty ingrained in us. Why should there be a cause for anything? Cannot anything exist by itself? The mind will not permit this kind of thinking. Space, time, and cause is a threefold united activity ingrained in the mind itself, and it cannot free itself from the clutches of this threefold compelling factor. Everything must be somewhere, everything must be at some time, and everything must be caused by something else. This is how we think, generally. We cannot think in any other manner.

Why should we be able to think only in this way? Even those who went deep into these compelling psychological phenomena could not finally answer this question. They were satisfied by saying, “Our knowledge is limited to space, time, and cause.” The people who declared that our consciousness is limited to these factors of space, time, and cause did not go further into an investigation as to how anyone came to know that we are limited by the presence of space, time, and causation. A limited thing cannot know that it is limited. We call a particular thing a circumference or a barricade because there is something outside it. Therefore, it is no good merely saying that we are limited entirely to the compelling factors of space, time, and cause.

Who says this? Here is a moot question. There is something in us which is beyond space, time, and causation, which tells us in its own secret voice that we could not know that we are limited to space, time, and cause unless we are something more than space, time, and cause. This is the beginning of religion: the awe and the wonder that we feel at the explanation of anything in the world. Everything is awesome; everything frightens; everything compels us; everything dissatisfies.

These factors arising from the wonderment arising out of perception of phenomena created doubts: How is it possible for a limited individual to know that the individuality is limited? Here is a bottleneck before philosophers. Some tried to answer this with a fear that what they say may not be correct. Some had the courage to say that there are no such boundaries. The fact that there are boundaries cannot be gainsaid. We know that we are limited, but we also know that it is not possible to know that we are limited unless there is a call from an unlimited Being. This is the phenomenon of the religious consciousness. It is not religion as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc. It is the power behind the process of thinking itself, from the deepest recesses of human individuality.

As every person is time-bound, culture-bound, language-bound, tradition-bound, and bound in many other ways, this consciousness got cast into the mould of these limiting factors of geographical, ethnical, and linguistic conditions, and we have many religions in different parts of the world. We have a set of religions called Semitic religions, which look up to the skies, to the high heavens, for discovering the ultimate cause of creation—a Transcendent Being. In the Eastern religions there is a mitigating factor of the discovery that a totally Transcendent Being cannot touch this world and, therefore, the world can have no relationship with that Transcendent Being. That which is disconnected above us cannot connect us with it. Therefore, the high aspirations for God for the attainment of ultimate perfection, if God is transcendent, will be unreachable because of the dichotomy between God’s location and the location of the world in which we are.

Thus, Eastern religions discovered this lacuna in holding on to mere transcendence, and declared that this Transcendent Being should also be immanent. It should be intrinsically present, and not merely extra-cosmically operative. This is the reason why we have many religions in this world. Knowing not the reason why there is such multiplicity of religions, to stick to the dogma of a particular fundamentalist attitude is foolhardy. That tragic condition should be obviated if humanity is to survive, and there ought to be a thing called human brotherhood and a cosmical society.

People go on saying they are Hindu, Christian, etc. That is a different thing altogether from the common denominator present in everyone at the back of these externalised forms—which is the aspiration of the soul to reach ultimate perfection. The longing of the finite for the Infinite is the religious consciousness. It may be through Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism; it does not matter. We can eat our meal on a plate or a leaf on the ground, or even from our hands, but a meal is a meal nevertheless. So, to emphasise too much the exterior factors of religion and become dogmatic and engage in warfare in the name of religion is only to concede that the barbaric instinct in the human being has not subsided completely. Man is still a wolf, as some political philosophers tell us. That wolf is still present in the camouflage of a cultured human being.

Religious consciousness is the divine element operating in us. It is not a social phenomenon. It is not something that we are asked to do by human society or the government. It is an inner compulsion, a morality and ethics which is based on God’s integral existence. It is a great marvel. Our existence is a marvel by itself. It is not merely that the world is a marvel; we ourselves are a marvel, as an inseparable part of this total marvel.

Every one of us is a wonder; every one of us has a tremendous meaning and glory imbedded in the deepest roots of our being. We are heirs apparent to the Kingdom of God, to put it properly. We are bound to achieve it, because our finitude cannot stand apart from the Infinite, to which it is organically related. Here is the beginning. Here is the brief picture and the design pattern of what I designated as religious consciousness, about which I will speak to you further.