[A paper contributed to the Madras Session of the Samaja Conference. - Ed. S. D.]
IT has been truly said that no two men are alike in this wretched world, not only as regards their physical features, but as regards their mental caliber as well. The varieties indeed are so many, and the causes of these varieties so different, that it would not be possible to trace a relationship between them. Confining ourselves to the material plane, we find that the climate we live in, the nation to which we belong, the community in which our lot is cast, the parentage we are born of the society we move in, the way in which we are brought up, the condition in which we are placed, the instinct we inherit – all these and a thousand other causes contribute largely to this difference. And add to these, the various standards of our intellectual capacity, and you will find the difference still multiplying by leaps and bounds. All these are natural causes over which we have no control; and these causes must produce their own effect; and when they do so, it is beyond the power of man to overcome those effects. These causes mould the mind of man, and he thinks and acts accordingly. His conscience is shaped fully and wholly by these natural causes, and his duty is to follow the dictates of that conscience. The duty of every man is to do what he thinks right and to refrain from what he think wring. If he is forced to do anything which, in his opinion, is wrong, or to refrain from doing anything which, he thinks is right, that would amount to a compulsion, to commit sin. This is indeed a piece of atrocity which can only be heard among barbarous people, who have no idea of right and wrong. Liberty of conscience is the most precious privilege which a man enjoys, and it is this liberty which is highly valued and rightly protected by all the civilized nations of the world. I may say that this protection is the surest test to gauge the enlightenment of any Government, and that it is the keen sense of the British nation to the importance of this liberty that has brought them and their Government to prominence.
This liberty is of paramount importance in the matter of religion, much more than in matters secular, not only because our spiritual interests are of much greater importance than any secular interest, but because religion is highly essential to man in the secular plane itself. We invoke the aid of God in our secular activities, and we regulate our social and moral conduct under the guidance of religion. Religion is an important and indispensable factor both in the material and spiritual planes, and it is therefore very essential that every man should be allowed to exercise the liberty of his conscience fully and freely in the field of Religion. We must be allowed to worship God as we understand Him, and in the manner we think the best. If we are prevented from doing so, such prevention would amount to forcing us to do what in our opinion is a sin. The people who enforce the prevention may think otherwise, and can plead that they are only preventing us from what appears to them a wrongful act; but it is not a wrongful act in our view and there is hardly any use in preventing us from doing an act while our view of that act remains unaltered. The gravity of every action – either of commission or omission – depends on the motive; and to thrust any action on us in the absence of the necessary motive, will not only be of no use to us, but, on the contrary, will be inflicting an injury on us, when we consider that the action thrusted is against our interests.
I know there are civil and municipal laws which we are bound to observe, even though we do not believe in their efficiency; but the case is quite different in the field of Religion. In the matter of what we call civil or municipal laws, we are bound to obey them whatever we may think of them. But in the matter of religious or spiritual laws, our actions should invariably accompany a strong faith in the efficacy of such laws; otherwise those actions would be mere pretentions which, it would be preposterous, to enforce on any one.
Although there was a time when certain primitive forms of Government compelled the subjects to follow the state religion yet it is a great satisfaction to find that such times have passed away, and we are living in a time when almost all the Governments are fully alive to the necessity of granting the privilege of liberty of conscience to all the subjects. Every man is at full liberty now to follow the religion he chooses according to his own conviction, and any attempt on the part of any one to force another to espouse a religion which he does not believe in is even considered in the light of a serious offence. I may say that this is a true sign of civilization, and any nation that may be found lacking in this golden principle can have no claim to civilization.
Liberty of conscience being such an important factor in the political world, how much more so, should it be in the religious sphere? I mean if the political world considers the liberty of conscience one of the valuable assets of subjects, how much more so should it be considered by religion. Religion, much more than Politics, is expected to set a very high value on ethics, 'to realize the impossibility of a man following a faith which he does not believe in and to greatly appreciate his conduct when he follows the dictates of his conscience. Religion must frankly admit that a man is not responsible for his conscience, that he can only be expected to walk in the light of the knowledge he is possessed of and that when he does so, he should undoubtedly be adequately rewarded. It is a sense of the importance of this principle that has raised the status of modern Government in the estimation of all right thinking men, and it is the same sense again in the religious sphere too, that will have to speak of its lofty character. But if religions could be found wanting in this equitable and magnanimous view, what could we say of such religions? If a religion could be found to teach that all people who follow other faiths, whatever their sincerity and convictions in such faith may be will be condemned to eternal hell, can we say that such a religion bears the seal of God? Is this not a sufficient test to verify the truth of a religion? Could a man be punished, and that too in eternal hell, because he was true to his convictions? Could a man be punished because he was guided by the knowledge given to him by God?
And again, whom do the followers of the various faiths serve after all? Is it not the same only true God Whom these exclusive religious themselves preach and pray to? It may be that each religion may have a form peculiar to itself in the mode and method of worship. Is this a sufficient reason to condemn the followers of all these faiths to eternal hell? Can we for a moment persuade our mind to believe that the Merciful God, Who dwells in the heart of all men, will condemn any one to eternal hell, because there was some difference in the method of worship adopted by him, although that difference itself is the result of a true conviction on his part that he was pursuing the right course? This is absurd, and such an absurdity cannot get into the doctrines of a true religion itself, and a religion that does not recognize this excellent principle, can have no claim to Divine Origin.
We know that Hinduism fully recognizes this principle and it clearly and distinctly lays down that, whatever a man's religion may be, and in whatever form he may direct his worship God of all souls will accept that worship and reward the man according to his merit. This is an unmistakable sign of the true religion – a religion that discloses the unbounded mercy of God on all souls, and a religion that is fully alive to the importance of the liberty of conscience. Hinduism fully realizes the fact that it is altogether impossible for a man to think otherwise than his conscience dictates to him, and that God would never expect us to do impossibilities. Hinduism is true to its teaching that every man obtains his knowledge from God according to his capacity, and it therefore, lays out the golden rule.
யாதொரு தெய்வங் கொண்டீர் அத்தெய்வமாகியங்கே
மாதொரு பாகனார் தாம் வருவர்.
Now again, what about the various religions that prevail on the face of the earth? Can we say that these religions were ushered into the world without the knowledge of God, - against His will and pleasure? No; we cannot for a moment say so. God it is that provides a religion to every man according to the standard of his spiritual growth, in the same way as He supplies our material wants according to our different states of life. And can we say that having placed us in a certain religion, He would punish us for following that religion? Can a mother who give her child a certain food be said to punish that child for taking that food?
It is true that in this miserable world there are good and evil, and that our duty is to choose the good and shun the evil; but how are we to do this? Is it not by exercising the intelligence given to us? When this intelligence assures us that a certain form of religion is the true religion, we cannot but follow the religion; and are we to be punished for choosing what appears as the best? Good and evil are again relative factors, and what may be good to us at a certain stage, may be bad at another stage. They depend fully upon our intelligence, and no religion can therefore be said to be bad in a general sense. Religions are given by God to suit the different grades of people, and they cannot be said to be snares spread by Him to entrap the souls. God gives us the religion, and God gives us the intelligence to believe in the religion; and can we say that He will punish is for following that religion, if we have any sense of Divine Justice?
There is another argument raised in this connection and this demands a fuller explanation of the position, as it seems to have been greatly misunderstood not only by the followers of alien religions, but by some of our own faith too. If God is supposed to accept the worships of men of the different religious faiths, the question is reasonably asked "How could Hinduism be said to be the true religion?" If every religion is acceptable to God, why should He give a special religion? This is no doubt a pertinent question, and the modern expounders of our religion have led the public to understand that our religion is a much shorter path to God than the other religions, and hence its superiority over them. I think the position is not exactly that, and I am inclined to think that our modern expounders have not done full justice to the position of our religion in this respect. Perhaps their object is to render their teachings acceptable to all creeds and faiths and to secure a uniform approval of their mission which, in my opinion, seems to savor more of policy than of genuine truth.
I do not think it possible to argue from a Hindu standpoint that every religion will be able to secure the ultimate end True it is that God will accept the worship of man in whatever religion he may be, and reward him according to his merits. But this will not go to show that all the religions are capable of securing to us the true religion. The other religions may help us to rise in the ladder of spirituality according to their own standard and capacity, and may eventually lead us to the true religion, from which alone, the final goal can be reached.
The final stage of Paramukti depends wholly on our seeing God in His true form, and this true form is not of many kinds as the different religions represent it to be. There cannot be many ways of seeing this one true form, although these ways may help us to get to the portal through which alone the true form of God can be seen. The varies views, and the consequent varied experiences, in the different religions cannot be expected to secure alike the uniform Advitananda which cannot be seen in different ways or with different eyes. There are truths in every religion; but not the whole truth that will enable us to see the Satchitananda in its sublime glory. We may catch glimpses of truths here and there in every religion, and we may have some experience to the extent of the truth we are able to see; but this cannot be the whole truth in Its full glow of grace which can only be seen by following the course laid out for the purpose by the great God, and by submitting ourselves to the rigorous spiritual discipline detailed therein. It must be understood that the Divine Presence is a great mystery which cannot be reached by anyway and every way. It can only be reached by strictly following the course laid out for the purpose under a competent Guru.
A dispenser in a Hospital may chance to know something of the curative powers of certain medicines and of a few symptoms of certain disease; but this knowledge will not qualify him as a physician; he must undergo a proper and systematic training in the art and science of medicine, if he wants to become a physician. Similarly we may by chance come across some truths in the field of spirituality in every religion, but it is the true religion that will be able to give us a proper training for our admission into that mysterious region; and the Siddhanta Sastras therefore assert that, unless we assiduously practice the formulae laid out by the Agmanta it will not be possible to attain that final beatitude. The Siddhanta is fully alive to the merits one may acquire in alien religion, and such merits, it distinctly says, will be fully recognized and adequately rewarded; these rewards being confined to the regions or tattvams to the extent of which he was able to see the truth; but at the same time, it boldly declares that the final stage can only be reached through the portal of the true religion.
Even in the school of Siddhanta, there are four courses to be followed one after the other, and it is only the last course of Jnana that will help one into the bliss of Mukti. I am afraid that a mistake is being again committed by our modern expounders in this respect also; they seem to think that any of these courses, which they call by the names of Karma Yoga, Bakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga could secure to us the final beatitude. I should think that this is not correct. It is only the last course of Jnana – to which of course the other courses are but gradatory steps – that will secure the final stage Advitamukti. Karma may help us to Bakti, Bakti to Yoga, and Yoga to Jnana which alone can qualify one to Mukti. It would not be possible to attain this Mukti directly through any of the three lower grades, although those grades in themselves are important and indispensable factors for acquiring Jnanam. Jnanam comprises in itself the results achieved by the three preceding steps, and with the help of the results so achieved, it goes a step further and realizes the truth in its true light, which realization enables the soul to enjoy the Great God for ever.
But in the case of the souls who had completed their course in the lower grades in their previous birth, they need not go through those courses again in this birth, but they may get into the Jnana Marga directly either from Sariyai, Kiriyai into which they might have been led by their Karma. These cases are however, exceptions and should not be considered as the rule which is that the four paths of Sariyai, Kiriyai, Yogam and Jnanam have to be followed one after the other, for the attainment of the final bliss.
Although the Siddhanta Marga is very strict as regards to indispensability for the final end, it is very liberal in that a fully recognizes the merits one acquires in every religion, and here we could see the unmistakable sign of the true religion.