The Nature of the True Religious Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 4: The Definition of Religion

When we look around in all directions, we see things, objects, plants and trees, animals and men, but we do not see religion anywhere. We are not able to recognise the presence of religion anywhere in the world. We see only people moving about doing something, and the animals, the plants, the things, and all their subdivisions, but not the thing called religion.

We may be under the impression that we see religion in temples, churches and holy places of pilgrimage, but what do we see there other than buildings and people, books and decorated articles? Do we see religion? We see the same things inside the holy of holies that we see in a shop or a railway station. Only the arrangement is different, and the pattern of the presentation of the very same objects may convert them into a shop or a temple. Thus, temples and holy shrines seem to be distinguished from the marketplace in the pattern of the arrangement of things, not because we see something different altogether.

Here is something which is very mysterious. By travelling a long distance, we cannot discover the presence of religion anywhere. We can see human beings running about saying something, and doing a variety of things. This satisfies the curiosity-ridden investigative faculty of man for the time being, but one day he will be tired of this travel. A day comes when man gets fed up with everything. He has seen nothing, in spite of all his searches. He seems to be caught up in a peculiar enigma which beckons him from one side and tantalises him from another side. This is what we are searching for – a thing which we cannot escape from, and a thing which we can never get. What a pity!

Here is life in its quandary and mystery, enigma and problem and difficulty, where we will not be allowed either to live or to die. We have no freedom to keep quiet, nor have we the confidence that we are going to obtain what we seek in this world. Hence, life has ended in a struggle without an achievement.

People are very fond of saying that life is an adventure, but the adventure is always directed to an achievement of a purpose. If the purpose is always receding from the ken of our searching faculty like the horizon moving further and further, never getting caught by the grip of our hand – if the adventure of life is only an adventure and nothing more than that, and we are going to gain nothing out of it – this is what is called catching a will-o’-the-wisp. And when old age supervenes, when life fades like the evening flower, we seem to be disillusioned of all things. Religion has not come, and we know nothing about all these things. How is it that we are in this predicament?

Though we seem to be overwhelmed sometimes, and overcome by an enthusiasm of a religious type – and there is not one man in this world who would not have been urged onward by an instinct of religion in some form or other, at some time or the other in life – but yet, nothing can be seen with the eyes.

The seriousness of this problem diminishes, and we seem to be able to discover a ray of hope when we see another phenomenon of this type in our own personal lives. The recognition of our own existence is not an object of perception. As we cannot see religion anywhere, we cannot see our own selves also. You may say that you are seeing yourself seated here. We have already noted on an earlier occasion that this thing that we see seated here perhaps is not the true me, I or you, reasons for which are well known to you already.

You may close your eyes, plug your ears, block all your senses, yet you will know that you are. That means to say that there is a kind of knowledge which does not require the apparatus of senses, one example of which is the knowledge of your own being. Everything else in this world requires the operation of the senses. If the sense organs do not work, you cannot know anything that is happening anywhere. But there is one thing which you can know, even without the operation of the senses – the fact that you are. You know that you are, even if you are blind and deaf and cannot speak; yet, you know that you are. This is a strange thing, a capacity which overcomes all dependence on the faculties of perception so very essential to things in the world.

It is possible that religion is of this kind. It may perhaps belong to a category to which we also belong. We do not seem to belong to the objects of the world, but today we have converted ourselves into objects. This is the reason why we cannot see religion with the eyes. We see only objects. The reason is that we are also objects. Man has lost his subjectivity; and in a world of mechanistic associations, he has become one nut and bolt in the machine of life, and he has finally landed himself in the predicament of a factory worker so that everything he does in life may be regarded as a sort of mechanical action in a large factory of life.

And what do we see in a factory? Only objects. Even the worker in a factory is seen as an object; he has no subjectivity, he is such a dependent individual. He is one of the parts of the huge machine called the factory, without which the factory cannot run. Have we also transformed ourselves into the parts of this machine which we call this world of science, physics, astronomy and all human activity?

When the knowing subject has been absorbed in the world of objects, a state into which we have landed ourselves apparently, we can neither see religion nor any other value in this world. There are things we value very much, like goodness, honesty, truthfulness, religiosity. We value these things high above every other advantageous thing in this world, yet these are the things we cannot see with the eyes. We cannot see goodness anywhere. We cannot see truthfulness. They are not objects of sense. We are hugging principles which are not capable of being discovered by the well-known faculties of man, the sense organs. Finally, we find that all the values of life seem to be super-sensory, and the mechanism of the senses proves itself to be inadequate in the search of these super-sensory values.

The presence of a superior to one’s own self is the initial fact of the operation of the phenomenon called religion. The very meaning of religion connotes the recognition of a superior to yourself in some way or the other. If everything in the world is like you, the religion that you think of loses its sense. The awareness that there is something different from you and perhaps superior to you in some way compels you to establish a relation of obeisance, reverence, awe, respect, affection, and all the things of this sort between yourself and that object.

It is not always necessary that this object of reverence should be visible to the eyes. We are frightened many a time without knowing why we are frightened. Even the unlettered man feels there is something which defies him, and which will not listen to his dictates or mandates.

Students of religion have gone deep into these stages of the development of the religious consciousness in human life, and after meticulous examination of this phenomenon, have come to the conclusion that we cannot see religion in this world unless we feel that there is something in the world which is superior to us.

Now, today, we are living in a world of equality of social forces, and forces of every kind. There is nothing superior to us. The boss and the subordinate are on a single pedestal. The ruler and the ruled are similar in every character. Nothing is inferior, nothing is superior. Why should we want religion in this world when there is an equanimous distribution of physical forces and economic powers? Whatever I am, you are, and whatever you are, I am. Who is superior and who is inferior? Who can be obedient to another? Obedience has no sense in a world of total equality where everything moves along a beaten track of common purpose; and this common purpose is nothing but the objectness of the human being. We have all become objects, and therefore, no object can be regarded as subservient to another object. The externality that characterises things in the world infects the human being also, so that we are also externalised persons. Do we not see one another as scattered here in a heap of people seated in this hall, for instance?

Inasmuch as we are externalised units of perceptional centres, we have no subjectivity in us. You see me and I see you. Then who is the subject and who is the object here? Inasmuch as everyone is seen by everyone else, everyone can be regarded as an object. Thus, the world is full of objects. This is an objective world, and in this objective world where only objects exist, subjects have no place.

Then we have what we call the mechanistic religion of materialism. It is a doctrine of the involvement of everything in material forces, so that there cannot be anyone who can observe these forces. Even the so-called observer of the forces is a part and parcel of this quantum of material forces. The blind movement of matter is the object as well as the subject in a world of pure matter. It is difficult to understand how matter can see itself. Here is a point which requires consideration.

But the stuff of mankind is such that it cannot always be beguiled by these doctrines because there is dissatisfaction, a character which cannot be attributed to matter. It is man that is dissatisfied, and more dissatisfied than any other object in this world. Nothing can please him finally, and he is in search of an objective which he does not seem to be able to discover in this world of pure objects. He cannot understand why it should be raining, why the sun should rise, or why the seasons should roll on in such a precise, scientific manner.

There are laws operating in this world over which man has no control. The feeling that there are things over which one can have no control frightens us. We are in a world where there are things which we cannot understand, which we cannot rule, which we cannot command, and yet without which we cannot exist. We cannot command the winds and the waters and the elements. We have nothing to say about them. They are totally independent of us. Yet without their existence, our existence would be obliterated in a second. This shows to what extent man is dependent on the forces of the world.

The desire to investigate into the nature or the specific character of this dependence on forces over which one can have no control is the beginning of religion. Investigate into this phenomena: “How is it that I have become so much dependent on the world? How is it that I cannot know anything, finally?”

People who are totally absorbed in the objectivity of the world have no religion. They are sleeping, like matter. The lowest condition of man, who is designated by varieties of names by anthropologists – the primitive man, the Neanderthal man, or whatever man he may be called – seems to be sunk in the material objectivity of things so deeply that an awareness of a superior force controlling him may not arise in the earlier stages.

Religion proper, in a pronounced manner, manifests itself only when we begin to feel the presence of a pervasive principle which seems to be operating behind the particularities of the world, of which we are also unfortunately a part, though this pervasive principle cannot be seen with the eyes. An abstract universal seems to be controlling the concrete particulars, without an acceptance of which life seems to be unintelligible.

An inference that particulars in the world cannot come together in any systematised manner or in an intelligible way without the operation of an abstract force behind them would lead us to a deeply philosophical mood. Any organised effort or movement is unthinkable, unless there is a force of organisation behind the particulars which are to be organised. Any association, organisation, society or group will be an unintelligible nonsense, if behind this association so-called there is not to be a pervasive force.

This is again an invisible object. We cannot see a thing called government. We see only people sitting together in a large hall and calling themselves members of Parliament. We see only chairs and tables and people, not the parliament. So the thing called parliament is a pervasive influence that operates behind these particulars called human beings seated on the chairs in the parliament house. We cannot see an organisation; we see only people calling themselves an organisation. What is called an organisation is again a pervasive force, an influence that seems to be seeping through the particularities called the individuals.

So is the case with any kind of association, even between two parts, two individuals, two persons. Two people are friends; one is a friend of the other. Friendship is invisible to the eyes. We see only two people. Friendship is again a permeating force operating between two parts and bringing them together into a cohesive completeness. This seems to be the feature of everything in this world. The scattered particulars, whether they are material or organic, cannot convey any meaning to us unless they are organised in some fashion. For every project or enterprise, we embark upon an organisation of some sort, by which we mean to say that we introduce a super-physical influence into the visible physical units – call them objects or human beings.

This awareness wakes us up into a new vision of things that the values of life are not physical objects. That which you regard as really dear and meaningful is not a thing that you can see with your eyes, and the things that you can see with your eyes are the least important things in the world. Yet, we may be muddled in our thinking and go after the objects which are physical, and cling to them, imagining that these are the values.

On a careful analysis, you will realise that the values that control life are not visible to the eyes. They are totally beyond the ken of sense operation. Be a little investigative and go deep into the structure of every phenomenon in this world. You will find that the thing that you love most is that which you cannot see with the eyes.

I mentioned to you the phenomenon of friendship between two persons. A loves B as a friend, and clings to B as an object of endearment. The object is imagined to be the embodiment of affection. The object is itself affection concretised in that particular form. But we know how unimaginative a person should be to think that the affection that one evinces in regard to a person is the same as the person.

We have already had occasion to observe that every association is an invisible pervasive influence, and friendship is one such. It is an influence that is exerted mutually between two individuals, and the individuals themselves are not the influence. This is a transcendent operative force which we love so much as friendship. But occasions there are when friends can part relationship; one can bid goodbye to the other under given conditions. What happened to that affection which was poured upon the individual earlier, recognising the individual itself as a form, as it were, of affection? Friendship has ceased to operate under conditions which cannot permit the operation of this affection. Therefore, affection is a condition, and not an object. It is a state of affairs, and not a thing that we see with the eyes. It is not a human being that we love as a friend, but something in our head which has somehow withdrawn itself to its own source due to unfavourable circumstances.

We are not discussing friendship here. I am only giving this as an example to show that finally, when we go deeply into the philosophical stuff of what we call religion, people realise that it is a phenomenon which cements all particulars into a cohesive whole of superior transcendence in a universal pervasive manner, and religion is not a thing that we can see in the temples and churches. We can see only the minds of people.

Religion is a longing, and not a thing that is seen. If the longing is absent, the things may be there as they were, and they cease to be religious any more. You may be sitting inside a church for years together without the spark of longing. You would be only a watchman of the building, but not a religious person. You may be a caretaker of that structure, but you cannot regard yourself as a seeker. A seeker, a religious individual is, therefore, one who longs for that pervasive invisible influence, without which particulars lose their collocation, arrangement and meaning.

Thus, we may be led to a very strange conclusion again that religion is a transcendent force and not an empirical phenomenon. It is transcendent because it cannot be seen within the jurisdiction of the objects of sense. We have searched all over the world and have found nothing of religion, but we found that it is present, as a government is present, though it is not visible to the eyes. We see a Collector, a Minister, a President, but they are not the government. The government is something incapable of ordinary definition. We cannot search for it. It is inside the hall, also. The thing called government is present inside this building, but we cannot see it. We cannot see it anywhere. Go anywhere throughout the country, and you will find that it is not anywhere, yet it is everywhere.

The principle of religion is nowhere to be seen with the eyes, yet it is everywhere present as the meaning that is hidden behind the relationship between particulars. Thus, religion is a meaning and not a substance. It is not a thing that we can catch hold of with our hands. It is a significance, a value, a connotation, and a super-sensible mystery. Inasmuch as religion eludes the grasp of the senses and defies any kind of experiment and observation in a scientific manner, it may appear that religion does not exist in this world, and we may be prone to deny even the very existence of it.

Anything that is invisible is an object of suspicion, but, as I mentioned, there are things which may not be objects of experiment and observation. You cannot conduct an experiment and observation of your own true being, notwithstanding the fact that you are sure that it exists. So a particular form of existence may be permissible under the scheme of things, though it cannot be an object of science, or even perhaps of a philosophical analysis. Religion is not philosophy. It is not an intellectual activity, or a ratiocination of the academician. It is a feeling of a stuff that is at the root of your being. And if you can recollect the analysis in regard to the root of this being we conducted earlier, you would know what this root of yours is.

So we may safely conclude from these analyses that in the aspiration for religion, the whole of our being is caught up. The root of our personality is welling up into action for grasping the whole that is present in the midst of all the particulars. The deepest that is within us is asking for the deepest in the universe. The whole of us is asking for the whole of the cosmos, and when the entirety of us rouses itself into action, we become a truly religious individual. The whole of us never acts and, therefore, we are never wholly religious at any time. We are fragmented in our observations; we are partially religious, but never entirely, wholly, because the total spirit in us never rises into action. We are active emotionally at some times and intellectually at other times, and physically sometimes, but the deepest within us never comes to the surface.

It is said that the deepest stuff in man operates on rare occasions, but not always, just as a reserve force in the army or the police does not come into the forefront at every moment of time, unless it is required. Usually it is not necessary, and therefore, it does not come to the forefront.

The essential force of our personality does not rise into conscious action because its action is not necessary under the existing circumstances. We can get on without it. Our will operates, our intellect operates, our feeling operates, but none of these is wholly us. These are like servants whom we employ for particular purposes, and a servant is not the same as the master. There is a master principle within us which does not act unless it is evoked into action by supernormal circumstances operating in the world. Normal circumstances cannot rouse us into action.

Students of biology and psychology have felt that rarely our whole personality acts, such as when we are drowning in water, for instance. I don’t know if any one of you has had this experience of drowning. Then everything seems to be hopeless, and it is impossible even to think. Your true being rises into action and your best power is harnessed for activity at that time. The greatest in you begins to act when you are drowning in water. At other times, why should you act? Things are well. You know very well that everything is failing there. Nobody is going to help you. Then the final reserve force that is within you comes into action. The entire army is unleashed because a tremendous enemy is attacking, and nobody else is ready to help you. And who is the greatest power that is within you? The reserve force, the deepest within you, comes into action.

When you are fast asleep, you seem to be going to the same condition. There are certain emotions of a romantic type or an aesthetic nature very rarely manifesting themselves in life where your whole being is roused into action, such as when you listen to superb music – not ordinary music but superb music, enrapturing and throwing you out of gear totally. Such music is very rare, but it does exist. There are types of music that can throw you out of track totally, and you are no more yourself. At that time you lose personality consciousness, and your soul acts.

You may be thrown out of gear in this aesthetic fashion even when you look at a beautiful painting of Michelangelo or Ravi Varma, or of that category. You will not be able to draw your eyes from this painting. You are absorbed. You with a capital ‘Y’ get absorbed into this phenomenon called the painting. It may be a form of architecture, it may be a sculpture, it may be a superb form of literature or a great poetry where you get drowned and forget yourself totally. In this condition, your true being acts. But it does not act, ordinarily. When you are roused into a fit of tremendous anger, perhaps sometimes you go mad; in this madness, also your whole being acts – though in a negative manner, not in a positive way.

Religion is a positive manifestation of the totality of your being in a conscious manner, not unconsciously as in sleep, not partially as it does in any ordinary activity. Therefore, religion is a very rare thing in this world. Everybody cannot be religious. Everybody cannot be so because of the difficulty in comprehending what it is and deploying it for the purposes of daily activities. We are just nobodies like machines, tools, moving in the street. When we go to purchase vegetables in the shop, what religion is there in our mind? It has vanished in toto because the recognition of the presence of this peculiar force connecting particulars is absent when we reduce ourselves to purchasers of vegetables and travellers in a bus holding a ticket in our hand. We are only just objects seated in a railway train, not religious individuals. Our religion goes to the winds at one stroke because of the visibility of an object which enthrals our objectivity wholly. Our objective personality takes possession of us to such an extent that the true subjectivity is no more there.

So, to be truly religious in the right sense of the term, one has to exercise great caution, and perhaps it requires great training. An untrained mind cannot be religious. Reading a scripture or listening to a sermon need not be equated with religion. There are many in this world who do this. We can go on listening to sermons and reading scriptures, yet we may not be religious people because of the phenomenon of objectivity which has caught hold of us, into which we land ourselves and through which we manifest our personality in ordinary activity like boors, like animals, not even as human beings, what to talk of the divine call which religion is.

Thus, when we go into the foundational nature of religion, we discover that it is a magnificent something which can enthral us wholly and make us forget ourselves entirely, if only we can know what it is. And to come to know what it is and to employ it in our day-to-day existence is the practice of religion.