The Heritage of Indian Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: The Vision of True Religion

The vision of life entertained in India has been called Darshana or perception of Truth, whose moods and manifestations have been adopted according to the various degrees and requisitions of people's practical existence. Nothing in the world has been more misunderstood than religion, because whatever be the hectic effort of the human mind to consider religious values as permanent, they have somehow managed to escape the grasp of the practical evaluations of life, and remain an isolated and future achievement which has segregated the secular from the spiritual. Even in the parliament of Britain there is the Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal, the upper house and the lower house, the upper one consisting of spiritual leaders and the lower one consisting of temporal or secular leaders. It is difficult, usually, to bring about a rapprochement between vision and life; and if India has struggled to achieve anything worth the while, it is nothing but this harmony between vision and living. Conceptual perception and inward realisation have been recognised as the essential determinants of the daily routines of life.

Now, the way in which the spirit, or the religious value, shows its impact upon practical life depends upon the manner in which life itself is revealed before our eyes. What is life? If we can know what life actually means, we can also have an idea as to the way in which the spirit has to enliven it. If life is a pursuit of the spirit, naturally every routine of life is that. Every vocation is supposed to lead to this recognition of the spirit in the forms of life and, therefore, every form of life becomes a vehicle or a temple in which is enshrined this deity of the spirit.

The cultural values of this country are commensurate with the visions of all mystics the world over. This lofty vision was not the prerogative of the people in India of ancient times, because great men do not belong either to the East or the West; they are a category by themselves. They form a fraternity in their own way, and they live in a realm of eternity, as it were. People who are acquainted with the cultural values of the world, who have made a deep study of world history—especially cultural history—would also be aware of the similarity that exists, and must exist, among lofty thinkers of all times and climes. Whether it was Socrates, Plato, Plotinus or Meister Eckhart in the West, or Acharya Shankara, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharishi or Sri Aurobindo in the East, it makes no difference. They saw the same thing with their eyes, which were internal, indrawn, and far above the limitations of the visions of our fleshy eyeballs.

The manifestations of life are the vehicles through which the spirit has to manifest itself. This was the first recognition of the culture of India, and the recognition of any truly worthwhile, abiding culture. Where the spirit is absent, there is only a corpse. This does not require much of an explanation. If there is any branch of our life which is bereft of the spirit, it remains a corpse; and it will decay, decompose, perish into debris, and become only a matter of memory. Every limb of the body is charged with the prana shakti in us, which is the vitality; therefore, there is no lifeless part in our body because the spirit is permeating and pervading every part of it. Likewise, if life is to be permeated with the spirit of the aspiration of man in general, it has to be a harmonious completeness. The great masters of yore in India—the subject which we are dilating upon here—contemplated the various manifestations and ramifications of human life, and girt up their loins to see that the flow of the spirit through the channels of life is maintained perennially, so that Bharatiya samskriti becomes sanatana samskriti.

What are the avenues through which we see life manifesting itself? Our needs are the pointers to these various branches of human life. Life manifests itself in various branches because of the needs felt by man, and the conduct of the human being in the various directions of his desires and aspirations may be said to be the various facets of his life. We have a necessity for security—a desire, we may say, which arises on account of our placement as physical finitudes, a fact which an investigative understanding did not forget to notice. The lofty aspiration for contact with the Supreme Being did not ignore the shambles in which human nature is engrossed and the weaknesses to which human nature is generally subject—the needs which the various aspects of the human personality cannot ignore. Thus, it was the wisdom of the masters that felt the need for classifying human life into the various fields of activity through which the needs of the human being can be fulfilled in the requisite proportion.

We have the need for protection and sustenance. This need arises on account of our being among many individuals; we are a society of people. This was the first and foremost vision that could be available to any prosaic perception, and inasmuch as there are individuals with similar aspirations and weaknesses scattered in different directions, there arises a necessity to bring about a harmonious coordination among the internal urges of the different types of individualities. What is individuality but the affirmation of an ego—an assertion of one's own self? The affirmation of oneself naturally conflicts with the similar affirmations of other selves, because it is impossible to live in the world with a total self-affirmative spirit which has no concern with other similar affirming centres.

Students and historians of political science have held the opinion that originally people lived in a state of nature—like wild animals, as it were. There was no security for any individual, as there is no security for animals in the forest. What security, what protection, what safeguard is there for a poor deer in the jungle? At any time it can be pounced upon by a wild beast. Which creature, which crawling insect, can regard itself as safe? Such was the pitiable state of man once upon a time, says the school of political science led by Thomas Hobbes, a great political thinker of Britain. There must be some great truth in what he says, and he propounds this doctrine to tell us how governments originated. An opinion of this kind is also promulgated—somewhat similarly, though not identically—by Bhishma in the Raja-dharma section of the Santi Parva of the Mahabharata. The necessity for rule, administration or government arose on account of a need felt by people for mutual security.

But the theology of Hindus—the religious vision of India, we may say—has something different to say in the light of the cycles of time, which it regards as very powerfully determining the conditions of living. We are told about the four yugas—Krita Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, Kali Yuga. The age of truth, satya or perfection is called Krita Yuga or Satya Yuga. It is the millennium, the golden age of utter harmony and supreme peace. Bhishma said there was no government in Krita Yuga, and perhaps this is also mentioned by Sri Krishna in the Eleventh Skanda of the Srimad Bhagavata. There were no scriptures, and there were no teachers of religion. There was no administration because each individual was a crystal, as it were, which reflected every other crystal of individuality so that everything was reflected in everything else. There was no hardboiled isolation of our physical encasement that we see today. People were like mirrors, as it were—clean glass, crystal—who could feel their presence in everything in their proximity. This state of life, naturally, did not require any external control or mandates.

A necessity for external control arises when that which requires to be controlled does not know the way in which it has to conduct itself in relation to others. When any particular individual or group of individuals loses sight of the goal towards which total humanity is moving, a need arises for regulating the movement of this aberrant section of mankind, and then comes the need for a system of government. The epics and the Puranas tell us that this was the beginning of Treta Yuga.

In some Puranas, such as the Vayu Purana, we are told such fantastic things about the conditions that prevailed in Krita Yuga, or Satya Yuga, that we would wonder whether such things could be possible at all. Tilling land was not necessary, as the harvest seemed to grow automatically of its own accord. People did not die prematurely. There were no courts of legal jurisdiction because there were no quarrels and no differences of opinion among people; there were no courts of justice, no advocates of law, no legal enactments, no system of ethics or morality. All these were out of point in a kingdom of values where everything was perfect to the core. The sun shone as it ought to shine, and rain fell as it ought to fall. Such enrapturing visions are given to us in some sections of these Puranas.

There was a deterioration of things, and then people required a ruler. The beginning of the system of administration is a story which is told by various people in different ways. The great metaphysicians of the West, such as Hegel, are of the opinion that the need for harmony by way of political administration arises on account of the reflection of the Absolute in the particulars. This is a highly philosophical reading of the working of political governments in one's life, and there is also great truth in this opinion. The need for harmony is the need for a government, because every individual resents a chaotic state of existence, a life which is bereft of any kind of relation with others. If anyone loves anything in life, it is harmony and orderliness. The philosopher's opinion is that the need for orderliness in life is the reflection of God in individuals.

God is Perfection, the Absolute, the highest harmony that one can imagine. Inasmuch as it is an Eternal presence, it is also present in the scattered particulars, even in the farthest aberrant movements of the physical individualities of human beings. Even in the widest departures of the human individual from the centre of Truth, Truth does not leave the individual; it pursues him wherever he goes. God is present even in the vilest of individuals, and the Absolute moves with its affirmations even in the farthest corners of human departure. This is the philosophical explanation given by Hegel and others for the need people feel for political security. And it may be true, at the same time, that in spite of this philosophical background of the need felt by people for administrative systems, the empirical beginning of administrative circles might have been as described by Hobbes. People sat together and conferred that it is pointless to fight among themselves, and so they needed a kind of order and system in their existence. They appointed an authority, which we may call the monarch or any type of administrative head, who is supposed to work in collaboration with the machinery that is set up to implement the ideals and ideologies that are the aspirations of man and any group of individuals.

This prosaic and perhaps grossest form of human need was not ignored. The Artha Shastras of ancient India are regarded as equally important as the Moksha Shastras or the other sciences, because while moksha is the liberation of the spirit, it was borne in mind by the wise men of yore that this liberation is effected gradually by untying the knots, one by one, from the lowest to the highest. This was really a penetrating vision which went to the very core of the problems of life and could not afford to ignore anything that is relevant to this freedom of the spirit, which is the ultimate aim.

But with the degeneration of time the vision gradually blurred and, unfortunately, became adulterated with the sensory and egoistic affirmations of the body. Life in the spirit became somehow identified with a vision of the future, and practical life became a matter of the present. Though it has been told again and again that the aim of life is an eternal presence and not a futurity of achievement, whatever be the number of times we may be told this truth, it is easy to forget the vital relationship that exists between practical involvement and ideal aspiration.

Seekers of truth, students of yoga, and preachers of religion can easily commit this mistake of soaring high into the lofty regions of ideology, which is the fate of religion today—not only in India, but perhaps everywhere. Either we cry out in the name of God who is not in this world, or ignore His existence totally. A spirit of false renunciation gets associated with this false conception of religion, which unfortunate consequence has resulted in the criticism that Indian philosophy is a world-negating ideology. But this is farthest from the truth.

A degenerating outlook of life, which somehow presented itself before the human eye for reasons which we cannot examine at present, became the reason for this carping criticism. While every criticism has some truth in it, it is not wholly true. We can appreciate that the truth of the criticism lies in the fact that we always look upon divinity as something which has nothing to do with our inner desires. We consider all our desires as devils, unholy satanic urges, and so we abruptly conclude that religion is nothing but a hastening into monasteries, putting on a hood or an ochre cloth, and dreading the very sight of the world. We have a fear of the perception of objects, and a peculiar, obnoxious, isolated attitude towards the things of sense, which resulted in what we call the occupation or vocation of religiosity.

Today, we live in a world where we have to be very cautious. We can no longer be foolhardy. The world has shown its true colours to some extent; it is not going to give us a long rope as it used to earlier. It has begun to show its teeth and claws, and if there is some truth in the saying, "nature, red in tooth and claw," perhaps the teeth and claws of nature are visible these days, to some extent, when no man can lay his head on his pillow with total security. Thus, a need to understand life has become the urgency of the hour; and if we are going to be content and complacent with our usual go-lucky attitude, we will have to pay a heavy price by way of utter repentance when it will be too late.

Our religions have become a mockery. This is the great truth. We are not going to be saved by our religion; nor is religion going to save mankind if it is to be a practical vocation of getting on in life, to somehow earn a name as a religious man, a pontiff, an acharya, a guru, a sannyasin, a yogi, a minister, a pope. If these are our ambitions and aspirations, God forbid, we do not know what is going to be our future.

We have to go back once again to the original sources of the vision of true religion which became the entire occupation of all life, and not merely one aspect of life. Our religions are only in the lecture halls or temples; they are not in the taxi stands or tea shops. Our religions are far, far away from the dirty roadside where beggarly people sell their wares. We have become accustomed to the idea of God arising only under a peculiar physical atmosphere; and when we are about to draw our last breath, it is not very likely that we will be in an atmosphere where we can see or perceive this religiosity.

The great masters who had the vision of India's culture regarded the many sides of life—the political, social, ethical, economic, aesthetic, civic, and axiological sides—as different aspects of one totality of life. If there is anything praiseworthy in the vision of India, it is the vision of this totality of the various manifestations of life.

We can imagine how far this criticism of India's religious outlook is removed from the truth when we realise that an emphasis was not laid on any particular branch of life. In India we have the most perfect artists and musicians, not merely monks who meditate on a super-transcendent Absolute. The perfection which architecture has reached, sculpture has attained, music, dance, literature have realised should be a surprising recognition and realisation to people who see only a negation of values in the culture of India.

Unfortunately, our people today seem to confirm the value of this criticism by confining their religious aspirations to worship in temples, and feeling hatred for human values in general. When hatred is rampant and is rancourous in the hearts of man, whatever be the cause, how can religion be a seed behind it? The ethics of life is nothing but the reading of the meaning of the present in terms of the ideal that is above it. The morality of a situation can be judged by the standard of the ideal or the aim towards which it is moving, and in the light of which its significance is to be read. How do we know what is right and what is wrong, what is moral and what is immoral, what is ethical and what is unethical? What is the standard of our judgement? The standard is nothing but the immediately superseding state of perfection in the light of whose constitution and characteristics this would be worthwhile and meaningful. This would be a very effective pedestal on which we have to place our feet to rise to that immediately superseding level of perfection. Perfection in its totality is not reached at once. It is achieved gradually, stage by stage.

There is nothing utterly unimportant or meaningless in life, because if anything is totally insignificant and substanceless, we would not perceive it. There is some sort of value seen in some way, by some individual, under some condition, at some time—therefore, one is after it. A total nihil or a zero cannot be an object of attraction to anyone. Truth is present even in the worst ugliness and distortion, and the Upanishadic seers were pioneers who proclaimed that our own movement or evolutionary progress is always from ananda to ananda—not from dukha to ananda. Though we have been hearing again and again that life is dukha, painful, sorrow, this is but one side, and not the whole vision of it.

The negative emphasis on the painful aspects of life, and the consequent need felt to run away from these painful centres, again precipitated the advance of humanity towards a false reading of meaning into religion. No genius can have this vision always throughout life; not even the greatest of prophets can have the hardihood to affirm that this vision of perfection is always before his eyes. There are progressions and retrogressions in everyone's life, but a margin has to be given to all these because "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"; and we have to give this margin of concession to the foibles of human nature, together with the great strengths that are inside, which are the deeper spiritual aspirations.

The vision of life, which became the deciding factor of the various vocations of life in India, was the seeing of meaning in each and every thing. Sarvam khalv idam brahma, tajjalan iti, shanta upasita, says the Chhandogya Upanishad. Everywhere, a ray of hope is present; in everything, the light of divinity is implanted. Therefore, everyone can move towards perfection in his own or her own way, and there cannot be a standard religious outlook for every minute detail for all people. Religion, as the worship of God or the aspiration for perfection, cannot turn a blind eye to the physical needs of man and the social norms of life, or to the political security I referred to.

Human psychology is the answer to the question as to how we have to conduct ourselves in life. The questions arise from us, and the answers also will come from within our own selves. The way in which we are constituted psychologically will also be the way in which we would feel the need to move outwardly in social life, and it will determine the type of government that we need, the kind of ethics that we have to adopt in our life, and so on. All these norms are relative to the psychological structure of the individuals.

These masters had the vision of the various levels or lokas of existence—Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, etc.—and all these levels have different types of morality prevailing in them, because their individual constitutions are quite different from the way in which we mortal physical individuals are made. The ethics of Svarga, the morality of Brahmaloka, are quite different from the morality that we would regard as most appropriate for us. Why go so far? Even in this very world, cultures vary and the principles or norms of ethics and morality change, and one differs from the other to such an extent that, due to various causes such as geographical, psychological, and ideological, one would look upon the other as odious. We cannot say that only our standards are perfect and others' standards are wrong, because, as I tried to point out, everyone has to rise from the level in which one is, and I cannot appropriate your level, nor you mine. Your standard of perfection—an ideal that you envisage before your eyes—arises from the particular level of evolution in which you are. You may be behind me or you may be ahead of me, but a hungry man is in need of physical food, while one who had a sumptuous meal may not be in need of that particular requirement.

Every constitution has its own variegated needs. The constitution that I am referring to is very complex. We are not simple individuals as we appear. Our needs are multitudinous on account of the variegated involvements of our personalities in life, and it is not easy for us to say what our needs are. We cannot answer this question offhand because every one of us, every individual, is involved in circumstances which are beyond ordinary human comprehension. We have the very gross needs of this physical body. Hunger and thirst pursue us every day. We need to maintain the health of the physical body; we have the urges of the vitality within us, which press us forward in their own way; our minds think in one way, our intellect argues in another way; we are born of a type of parents who have raised us in a social atmosphere, which also has an impact upon our minds; we belong to a nation; we are human beings of one type, and so on. Our conduct is decided by the various types of individual and social associations in our life.

Therefore, a very cautious investigation into one's own self as placed in this multitudinous involvement would be very essential for taking a spiritual step, because, ultimately, there is no such thing as a spiritual life isolated from life in its totality. Again we have to emphasise that this bogey of 'spirituality' which has led us astray by a misinterpretation of its meaning has to be shed at once, because God is not the Father merely of the spiritual seeking souls; perhaps He is the Father of even the devils and demons. The Puranas tell us that the great Father—the progenitor of mankind and the parent of the celestials, such as Indra and others—was also the parent of the demons, who were the opposite of the devas. The Pandavas and the Kauravas were descendants of Kuru, so both were called Kauravas. Diti and Aditi were two consorts of Kasyapa, the great descendent of Brahma, the Creator himself; and from such a great master and spiritual genius, we have these two bifurcations in the characteristics or movements of nature: the celestial, or we may call it the divine, and the demonic.

A true appreciation in a most harmonious manner, as it would be required, is difficult for prejudiced minds of man, for which he needs a complete deconditioning of his prejudices—racial, national, physical, ethical, and even intellectual. Therefore, we have to reiterate that the life spiritual, while it was the supreme ideal and ideology of the great cultural vision of India, was the vision of perfection. This is the reason why today India stands alive and breathes in the same way as it breathed years and years ago, in ages past. While today very unexpected and unfortunate departures from the norm of this perfection can be detected in our practical day-to-day life, we should also be happy that the germ of perfection is still present in India; and I, for one, do not believe that the culture of India will perish at any time.