The Crown of Life
The foregoing survey, in brief, of
the major religions of the world and some of their modern ramifications,
makes abundantly clear a general drift toward some common basic assumptions
and beliefs: (a) that the physical universe is no more than a small part
of a much larger whole; (b) that in like manner, our everyday human existence
is only a fragment of the vast and complex pattern of life; (c) that behind
the phenomenal, physical and human world, there is an Absolute Reality
or a state of Perfect Being, beyond change or destruction, complete within
Itself, which is responsible for all that is and yet stands over and above
Its own creation; (d) that this Reality, this state of Perfect Being, may
be approached by man (under competent guidance) through the agency of the
Word, or the Divine stream radiating Light and Harmony, which represent
the primal manifestations of the Formless into Form and from whose downward
descent all realms and regions came into existence.
If all religious experience tends in the same direction, then why, one asks, is there so much of conflict and controversy in the sphere of religion? Why is it that the devotees of every faith regard theirs as the only true one and all other faiths as false? Why is there dogmatic faith in spiritual monopoly and wherefore the Holy Crusades, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, the Spanish Inquisition or the communal riotings in India in 1947? The question is a valid one, and the reasons that must go toward answering it are many and complex.
The first thing that strikes one when taking up the comparative study of religion is its existence on different levels. At the core of every major religion stands the practical, mystical experience of some great sage or a succession of sages. Around this center have accumulated accretions of social codes, customs and ritual. Now the core may be common to the mystics of various ages and countries, but the social context in which it is experienced and conveyed must of necessity vary. The Westerner bares his head as a mark of reverence, while the Oriental covers it. The Hindu, belonging to a land with many rivers and abundant water, bathes before his prayers, while his Muslim counterpart, coming from the deserts of Arabia, is satisfied with a dry bath with sand. The European, living as he does in the colder regions, feels neither of these compulsions. Such differences of custom extend to other spheres as well. Polygamy may be lawful to the Muslim but it is a sin to the Catholic. Idol worship may be quite permissible in Hinduism but is hateful to the Puritan. The fact is that all religious leaders have stressed the need for maintaining high ethical standards, but their ethic has never been of the nature of an absolute. They have taken into account the social conditions obtaining among the people at the times at which they came and have tried to raise them to the highest possible point, aiming not so much at a standardization of outer custom as at inner purity of heart, and good will toward one's human and non-human fellow creatures. Jesus' immediate listeners may have failed to appreciate the truth of his assertion that he had come not to "break" but to "fulfill" the Law, and yet if Moses gave out the precept of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," Christ taught his disciples to love their enemies and to offer their right cheek when the left was slapped. Moses spoke according to the conditions of his time, and Jesus according to his own, so the ethics of Christianity deviated from those of Judaism, even though it is an extension of the older faith.
As a consequence of the factors that came into play in the development of religion as a social institution, we find that each religion creates around itself a distinct pattern of customs, dogmas and ritual. This pattern being distinct in each case, the devotees of every faith must necessarily feel themselves as standing apart from those of other faiths, not only in their dress and manners, but also in their modes of social concepts and attitudes. Yet the lives of all great religious leaders like Jesus and Buddha, reveal that while each of them accepted and extended the code of his own people, they nonetheless never forgot that all men were brothers and treated members of other societies with the same respect and consideration as they displayed to those of their own. Behind the varying outer forms that characterize life they saw pulsating the same Unity of Being, and it was from this level that they regarded all humanity.
What was possible to the great founders of religions should be possible for those who claim to follow them. But when we look at things as they stand, we find that this possibility of inter-communication, cooperation and understanding between various faiths, has seldom if ever been realized. A mystic like Sri Ramakrishna (Sri Ramakrishna, to test the truth that all religions lead to the same spiritual goal, practiced in turn the outer and inner disciplines of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and in each case, he found the end reached was the same.) may practically demonstrate the inner oneness of all religions, but the rest of us fail to grasp the point. The fact is that every major world religion, after the passing away of its founder, grew into an institution, with a priesthood to manage its affairs: the pundits in India, the Mullahs and Maulvis in Islam, the pharisees and rabbis in Judaism and the monks and bishops in Christianity. This development made possible the extension of the message of the great founders to numbers they could never have instructed themselves. Buddha personally met and influenced many an individual, but what was their number in comparison to the millions that heard the doctrine of Dharma when Ashoka created the various Sanghas or orders of Buddhist monks, two centuries after his death? Besides, it enabled the perpetuation of his message down the ages. Buddha has come and gone, Jesus may have been immolated on the cross, but the Sangh and the Church continue and keep alive their teachings in a widespread manner, which could not have been done if no such institutions had been developed.
But, if the institutionalization of the teachings of great spiritual leaders enabled their propagation and perpetuation, it also led to their transformation. The message of Christ or of Buddha as it was first delivered by each of them was one thing, but in the hands of the Church and Sangh that followed, it became another. The great religious leaders were moved and guided by first-hand inner experience and it was this actuality that lay at the heart of their teachings. They saw it as something universal, something latent in every man, and it was toward this that they directed the attention of their disciples, employing ethical advancement as a lever for spiritual progress. When their task, after their passing away, was taken over by rapidly expanding organizations, which grew more complex with time, one could not expect all of their members to have attained the same heights or even to have any glimpses of the inner mystic realms. Little wonder then, that with the growth of the church and the like, the interest in every religion should have tended to shift from the mystical to the ethical, the ritualistic and the doctrinal; in short, from the universal to the particular. Only a rare soul may penetrate through the dark veil within, but for every such being, a million, nay a billion, may discuss problems of ethics, practice outer ceremonies and hold strong opinions on various subjects, opinions not inspired or tested by personal experience, but picked up from the marketplace of life. And so, whereas we find no rigid framework of ritual or doctrine or outer code in the teachings of Jesus himself--everything being fluid and flexible, in a ready state to be directed to the service of the mystical message a rigid framework emerged with the growth of the Christian Church. As this variation took place, new barriers arose between the followers of Jesus and those of other faiths, barriers that never existed before.
As though this were not enough, the rise of priestcraft worked in yet another direction. The Church in its phase of growth had, in most cases, to struggle against heavy odds, as everything new usually meets with strong opposition. It could only offer the cross of danger and deprivation, not the rose of prosperity. Those who entered it, entered it for the sake of their convictions, not for love of power. But once the Church had come to be accepted, it began to exercise considerable sway over the people. They offered it gifts and titles and made it the final arbiter, not only in matters spiritual, but in matters temporal as well. Thus began a process by which the priesthood turned from the inner to the outer life, from self-abnegation to temporal power. In order to preserve its position, the Church encouraged the growth of doctrines and traditions, that reinforced its monopoly of authority. To strengthen itself, it created a halo around the altar to which it was in service, and condemned the altars where it had no hand. If the self-styled servants of Jehovah, or those of some other name of deity, were to maintain and extend their position and sway, then it was necessary that all gods of the philistines or of the heathens should be condemned.
These factors that we have considered operate in every field of human activity. The historian is only too well aware of the fate of every new movement, whether of a religious or of a secular character. It arises with a man of vision, undergoes rapid expansion in the hands of those whom his example has directly inspired, and then enters into a process of gradual senility and decay. The descent from a pulsating vision to a mechanical dogma is not peculiar to religion alone, but never-theless there are certain features in the case of religion which do not occur elsewhere.
These unique problems stem from the mystical experience at the heart of every great religion. The mystic experience, as we have seen, extends to planes of existence to which normally human beings have no access. Only a handful, nay less than a handful, can claim its mastery in any age. It is an experience unique in character, for it possesses a kind of richness, extensiveness, intensity and beauty that finds no parallel in earthly life. But we on this earthly plane can comprehend its meaning only within the limitations of our own mundane experience. The choice before the mystic, if he wishes to convey to us something of his unique experience (not just ending in silence or in the negative statements of the Vedantist or of St. John of the Cross), is perforce to resort to metaphor and parable.
In Maulana Rumi's Masnavi, we are told:
It is not fitting that I tell thee more,Jesus was quite explicit on the subject when speaking to his closest disciples (to whom he could directly convey first-hand inner experience):
For the stream's bed cannot hold the sea.
Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God;Whereas direct statement tends to be limited by the analyzable qualities of the object, figurative statement suffers no such bar. Poets have described their love for a woman in terms of a rose, a star, a melody, a flame, the moon, etc. The mystics have used a similar license when speaking of their love for God. But while the listeners to the poet speaking of human love are always aware that he is using metaphors, knowing well what a woman is, those hearing the mystic have no such comparison and often tend to forget that what he is saying is only figurative. So the statements of the man of spiritual vision are often taken literally when they are meant to be only metaphorical, and metaphorically when they are meant to be literal. Thus, when Jesus or Mohammed declared that he was the son or the messiah of God (as all great souls who have merged their will with the Divine Will have said), they were each taken to imply that he was literally the only son of the Almighty. Or again, when Jesus, speaking not in his capacity as a finite individual but in that of the Eternal Divine Principle that he embodied, said, "I shall never leave thee nor forsake thee even to the ends of the world," he was taken literally. So to seek active spiritual guidance from a living teacher after Jesus was no more, became a sign of disbelief and therefore was dubbed a heresy. But when Jesus quite literally spoke of the "single eye" or of God as "Light," he was taken to refer figuratively to integrity of conscience and the light of reason.
but unto those that are without, all things are done in parables.