Can we really afford to live without religion? If you ask yourself that question, some of you might say yes, you can. There are many atheists in the world who do not believe in religion. But is their understanding of religion the same as a mystic saint would understand religion? Religion really is a path, and it comes from the Latin word re ligere. Re means again and ligere means to tie. The English word ligature, which means to tie a knot, is derived from this root. So you tie two things together. You try to unite yourself with a Being, the Supreme Being, and that union is what religion teaches. We must understand then that religion is a path. We must have that clear in the mind because religion really is not an end in itself. It is not a goal. Religion is only a means of attaining something. One philosopher stated that the work of the church ends when the knowledge of God begins. That is really a perceptive statement. Religion must take you somewhere, but then religion must end because you have gained freedom; you have gained salvation, and so religion has finished its work. What need is there then for religion? Therefore we must try to understand religion from this basic viewpoint.
There is an underlying value which we all must seek, and that underlying value is that Reality which is within us.
The Encyclopedia Britannica states: “as far as scholars have discovered, there has never existed any people anywhere, at any time, who were not in some sense religious”. Also: “empirically what is called religion includes the mythologies of the pre-literate peoples on the one hand and the abstruse speculations of the most advanced religious philosopher on the other. Historically, religion, both ancient and modern, embraces both primitive religious practices and the esotericaly and symbolically refined worship of the more technologically progressive and literate human communities”.
These are only a few quotations to show how religion is important for people in their lives. There is an underlying value which all of us must seek, and that underlying value is that Reality which is within us. That same Reality we call God, and because of the need for seeking that Reality, you will find religions everywhere. Religion depends on the fact that there is suffering in the world, and along with suffering there is death, and as long as these two things exist side by side, there will always be the need for religion.
At this juncture I would like to point out a few facts and figures. Religions are of all kinds. Starting from the east, there is Shintoism which is based on the worshipping of ancestors, nature spirits, ancient heroes etc. by the ordinary people. There is Confucianism based on a philosophical system by Confucius. There is Taoism which is similar to the Vedantic teaching in one God. Tao means the Way. In India there are many religions starting from Hinduism and its various branches such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism and their many subdivisions. There is Buddhism with its branches of Mahayana, Theravada (Hinayana) and Zen Buddhism. In the west you are all familiar with Christianity. There are many branches of Christianity, such as Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox and their innumerable subdivisions. There is Islam with its various branches. The major ones are the Sunni Muslims and the Shiia Muslims. Recently, in Iran and Iraq, these two sects were entangled in deadly warfare because, I think, if you look at it objectively, they do not truly understand or practice what religion is.
Religion started a long time ago and is lost in pre-history. According to researchers, Hinduism started approximately 3500 years B.C. from the Indus Valley civilization. Judaism started approximately 2000 B.C. when God summoned Abraham to give him his message. Jainism approximately 872 B.C. Zoroastrianism about 628 B.C. Buddhism about 563 B.C. Mohammed was born in 570. He started Islam in 622 A.D. in Medina. Jesus was born 4 B.C. and Christianity started after him. All these are major religions. What do they have to teach us? Essentially, they have taught the same thing i.e. that we must love one another. There are many good quotations that I would really like to quote. Bhagwandas (The Essential Unity of Religions) said: “To uproot religion successfully we must first exterminate pain and death. So long as human beings experience and fear these, they will not cease to crave the consolation of religions. Also, so long as men and women are left, are encouraged and even positively taught to believe that religions differ, even in essentials, so long will they as the followers of such different religions also continue to differ, to quarrel, to fight and to shed each other’s blood. If on the contrary, they are led to see that all religions are one, and the same in essentials, they will also assuredly become one in heart and feel their common humanity in loving brotherhood”.
There are other quotations which I would like to bring to your mind. Jesus said: “Resist not evil. Bless them that curse you. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. Lord Buddha said: “Conquer hatred with love”. Mohammed said: “Recompense evil, conquer it with good”. Manu said: Be not angry with those who are angry with you. To those who speak harsh words reply with the sweet. Guru Kabir said: Speak sweetly with everyone. It is a charm with good influence. Give up harsh words. Vyas said: With kindness, conquer rage. With goodness, malice. With generosity, defeat all meanness. With the straight truth, defeat lies and deceit. From a Jain sacred text: Conquer your wrath by sweet forgiveness. By humility, check vanity. By truth and straight forwardness stay all crooked fraud. By peaceful contentment, vanquish greed. What does Taoism have to say? They rejoice not if revered, nor be angry if insulted, but they only are capable of this who have passed into the eternal harmony of God. The Bhagwat Gita says: Repay not blow by blow, nor curse by curse, nor by base trick the mean craftiness, but shower blessings in return for blows, curses and mean craftiness. Guru Kabir again said: Keep your critic close to you; give him a hut in your courtyard. Without soap and water he washes your character. What do all these quotations point out? The same essential truth i.e. you always practice love, kindness, charity, goodness, even when people do harm to you. Jesus said: When someone smites you on one cheek turn the other cheek also; and If someone takes your coat, give him your cloak also. Guru Kabir taught the same thing. He was a weaver, and if someone asked him for cloth, he will give him the cloth free even if he did not have money to buy food for himself. This kind of teaching is taught by all the saints in the world, and it is for us to examine the teachings and to try to live by them. Do not get fooled by the various trappings of religion. Religion is only a means and you must reach the goal. But as long as you stick with the details, the ceremonials, the dogmas, the rituals, the creeds and the doctrines, you will not be able to rise above their narrow limitations and achieve the Universal Godhood.
The world population is approximately five billion (When essay was written approx. ten yrs ago). Of those five billion, Christians, in all the various denominations, amount to 33%; the Muslims, of various denominations, are 17%; Hindus, in all the categories, are 13%, others, i.e. the minor religions of the world e.g. Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, etc., amount to about 16%. There are non-religious people in the world who amount to about 16.4% and the atheists are 4.5%. On the whole, approximately 21% of the world population believe in no religion, and 79% believe in religion. Now, in a democratic society, I am sure that you will say that 79% have to be right. If the 79% are right, I wonder what the other 21% are going to do. These same people who are called agnostics and atheists, eventually have to go through the same lessons in life. They also have to live by certain virtuous standards, certain religious principles, even if they do not accept religion. They still believe in what is good. They still believe in loving the people they know and the people whom they feel they should love. I am sure that they are not criminals. They are people just like us and, in the end, we are all on the same path.
As was pointed out earlier, there are many, many paths in life. It does not matter really which path you follow, but if you remain on the path, where are you going to arrive? When will you get to the ‘other end’? If I want to leave here and go to Montreal, but I am on the path between here and Montreal, and I do not want to get out of the path, where will you find me? Right on the path! I will never reach Montreal. Just so in life, there is a goal, and that goal is God. If we adhere to the religion and do not progress towards the goal, then that religion is not serving its true purpose in our life. The atheists will say that there is no such God, but that does not matter. A blind person might say that there is no light. Or a dumb person will not be able to say certain things, and because he is also deaf he might say that there is no language. Just so, people who are atheists and agnostics might deny the existence of God, but they cannot deny that there is a Power in the universe that has control over their lives also. They all have to live by the same principles. Their bodies function in the same way. Their minds function in the same way. They are all living in the same world. One of the good things about talking about the Universality of Religions is that it makes us be aware that we all live in one world, and religion belongs to all people in the whole world. But let us not forget the goal of religion, and I would like to emphasize that goal. Let us not always stay on the path, because as long as we stay on the path, there will be divisions and no progress. When we step out of the path and see the Reality, and see the Light, and we know that that is the goal, then there will be no divisions, no arguments, no -isms, because then we will have risen above the narrow confines of the path. The path of religion is narrow and we must cross that narrow path and see the wider view of the Divinity that is everywhere, and in all people.
Although people profess to have different religions, creeds, dogmas, rituals and belief systems, in the end, they are all people just like you and me. In the end, there is only one Supreme Power. That Supreme Power we call God, and that God dwells in us and, as Guru Kabir has also taught: we must search for, and find, that Power right within us. We do not have to go to pilgrimages and to do all kinds of austerities, because he taught what is called Sahaj Samadhi (easy realization of union with God). Find that union with God in your own life. It is not difficult. But if you stay only on the path, you will have to read the road map all the time, because you do not know the road. And if you continue only reading the road map, you will never get to where you are going. So let us use religion as a means of getting somewhere, and that somewhere is to realise God within ourselves. If you can do that, then you will see that religion is really unversal because all people are the same. God is the same. The Divine power that governs us is the same. We are all united in God.
Although religion is universal in that it deals with the basic inner nature of human beings, it has taken on various outward appearances depending upon the place, time, circumstances and other conditions and developments of the people involved. Since basic human nature is the same, it is easy to conceive that religion should permeate the lives of all people. The great personalities after whom religions of various kinds have been formed over the ages, have used different languages, metaphors, value systems, exhortations, criticisms, illustrations and various other means of communicating religious ideals and feelings to the common people. Duren J.H. Ward, a great German scholar, saw that there existed a connection between race and religion. He states: “…religion gets its character from the people or race who develop or adopt it. … the same influences, forces and isolated circumstances which developed a special race developed at the same time a special religion which is a necessary constituent element or part of a race…” Hegel, a German philosopher, viewed the whole of human history as a vast movement towards freedom. He stated: “The reality of history is spirit and the story of religion is the process by which spirit… comes to full consciousness of itself. Individual religions thus represent stages in a process of evolution-progressive steps in the unfoldment of spirit – directed toward the great goal at which all history aims”. Max Muller, who is often called the father of the history of religions, states: “Particularly in the early history of the human intellect, there exists the most intimate relationship between language, religion and nationality”. Through his studies he found that Asia and Europe had three great races called Turanians, Semites and Aryans. They later divided and spread to various areas, and their language differed. Through their languages, mythologies and literatures he found similarities in the names of the deities, common mytholgoies and common important religious terms, and similar religious ideas and intuitions.
A few further quoations from different sources will suffice to illustrate that religion is really universal, and that basically the same teachings are taught by all of them, once the external garb of each is removed.
No man liveth unto himself…we are all parts of one another…God hath made of one blood all nations that dwell upon the face of the earth (Bible)
All creatures are members of the one family of God. (Koran.)
Human beings, all, are as head, arms, trunk and legs one unto another. (Vedas)
Invocation to the one Supreme Spirit of Unity: AUM used by the Hindus: AMIN used by the Muslims: AMEN used by the Christians. (Bhagwandas)
Esoteric philosophy reconciles all religions, strips everyone of its outward human garments and shows the root of each to be identical with that of every other great religion. (Madame Blavatsky)
Every scripture inspired of God is profitable, for the teaching, for reproof, for correction for instruction which is in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work. (Bible)
We believe in what hath been revealed to us and revealed to you. Our God and your God is one and to Him are we self-surrendered. (Koran)
Father of all! May Thy Supernal Light inspire, illuminate, and guide our minds! We open them to let thy glory in. (Vedas)
Lord of compassion! All praise unto Thee! Creator and protector of the worlds! Lord God! Beneficent and merciful! … Thee do we serve and Thee beseech for help. (Koran)
Grant us long life, Great Lord! and fortitude and the right mind, and show us the straight path o’er which thou broodest and which leads to Thee. (Zend Avesta)
O for Great Heaven! We call Thee our father and our mother. (Confucianism)
We are born in the same way from the mother. You and I have the same blood and the same life force pervades us. By which knowledge did we become different? (Guru Kabir)
All human beings are driven by the same basic inner forces. A few great souls who have managed to escape the narrow intellectual and material aspects of life, and realized the Eternal Reality which is universal, have become the teachers of mankind. They have all taught us to live a noble and righteous life of love, harmony, tolerance, service, humility, forgiveness etc. Some will aruge that these are only natural and ethical values which help people to live better, and therefore are necessary. But ethics has its roots in religion because religion existed from the beginning of manifested intelligent life, and was only given expression later by people in certain external forms. Religion depends on being aware of the connection which has always existed between man and his origin which is God. This must take precedence over ethics. Thus whatever we may call ethical standards of behaviour must, of necessity, arise out of a religious conviction and awareness. In the final analysis, no one can deny that religion is universal. Similarly, no one can deny that differences, intolerances, bigotry and in-fighting among religions exist. The deficiency is not in religion. It is the ignorance of human beings which causes the problems. If we all lived by the Eternal value systems taught by religion, and as God intended us to live, then mankind would have taken the greatest step in the unfoldment of his consciousness, and the realization of his Divine purpose in life.
Dr. J. Das
Guru Kabir Association of Canada