Chapter 10:  Religion in Life

As one travels around and meets different people—people who are generally well-meaning, intelligent and perceptive—one of the topics of conversation that often comes up is religion. What is religion? What is a religions life? Does religion continue to have any validity and relevance to our personal lives and our relationships? Can we lead a religious life and yet live happily and achieve success in this world?

To the ears of many, the word “religion” sounds a jarring note. That is because of the historical record of religion and what is happening even today in the name of religion—misdeeds of those who manage to take charge of religion and make use of it for personal or political ends. Like the word “love”, the word “religion” has been grossly debased. Religion has become associated with sect, cult, ritual of a particular type, with belief in one particular physical manifestation of divinity to the exclusion of all others; and therefore it has led to narrowness, bigotry, exclusiveness, intolerance and division—all of which connote lack of love and goodwill for mankind as a whole. As the Mahatma wrote to A.P. Sinnett, most of the ills of the world can, unfortunately, be traced to religion degraded by human avarice and selfishness.

If one may attempt to put it succinctly, the essence or core of religion is self-knowledge—Man, know thyself!

It has been explained that when thought identifies itself with sensation, then it becomes the “me”. This is the unreal, separative self, also referred to as the non-spirit. Religious life consists in a growing awareness of one’s true nature—that I am not this personal self but its master, not jiva but Parabrahman, the one pure consciousness.

Two basic insights are linked with this. The first is dispassion and the second compassion or love. Dispassion arises out of desirelessness or non-acquisitiveness. What my self craves for is not what I really want. I am not interested in what my self runs after; often I may not even know. A Zen story speaks about a man riding a horse which was running at a fast speed. A friend standing by the roadside asked him where he was going. Came the reply: “ I don’t know. Ask the horse.”

Perception also begins to dawn that what the self wants, under the mistaken and short-sighted belief that it will give happiness, is impermanent, changing, non-abiding and in that sense, illusory—“its pleasures are as birds which alight and fly.” Besides, desires never seem to get satisfied the more they are fed, the more they grow. Sensing all this watching and observing all this movement, the cravings which lead towards possessiveness gradually wither away.

Apart from realizing the impermanent and ultimately unsatisfying nature of things one had craved for, non-acquisitiveness also arises from occasional glimpses of one’s deeper nature, which is pure, unitive or non-separative from all other beings. The Bhagavadgita says:

He attaineth peace, unto whom all desires flow as rivers flow into the ocean, which is filled with water, but remaineth unmoved.

When the rivers of desires flow into the ocean of the unitive self, they lose their identity, and the ocean does not get affected by them. Religion refers to the one pure consciousness which pervades the entire universe, and which never gets sullied.

A sense of this oneness of life is also, it may be added, now beginning to filter down to the present day science in the field of matter—that in nature, on the material plane, all things seem to be interconnected, interdependent or holistic. I and the society in which I live cannot ultimately escape the consequences of my individual actions which result in reckless waste of natural resources or contamination of the atmosphere in my greed for more riches. In fact, thoughtful environmentalists now stress not only the intra-generational but also the inter-generational responsibility for our actions. One begins to see even physically that alone is really which takes care of the welfare of the totality of beings, now and in the future. When somebody once asked J. Krishnamurti what is good and what is evil, he responded: “No, no; let us use another word—Whole and that which is not whole.”

Another phenomenon in nature which strikes us as relevant in this context is its orderliness. Everything is in its place, remains in its place, and acts in its place, according to its own dharma. The sunrise and sunset, the movement of stars and planets, the cycles of seasons and of birth, growth, fruition and decay are all part of that order in nature. There is order even in the tiger preying upon the deer. Disorder arises in human society because of the selfishness and the greed to possess and accumulate more than we really need.

The second insight which is linked with or flows from an awareness of our true nature is compassion or love. All the great religions and all the great teachers of the world have therefore laid stress on love, and love leads to concern for and selfless service of others—“By love serve one another.” With the decline and fall of self-centered cravings and desires and a growing perception of the wholeness of life, thoughtfulness about and concern for others arise naturally, and active helpful deeds follow therefrom. Also, as we try to serve without thought of self, love wells up and gradually burns up the narrow self-centered image we have built of ourselves. Self-knowledge has been called the child of loving deeds. Neither the path to nor the goal of self-knowledge refers to seeking narrow personal happiness!

A religious life is, however, not incompatible with a happy and successful life in the world. In fact, a truly religious life is, by its very nature, joyous. But one has to understand well what it is that gives joy or happiness and what real success is in life. Does abiding happiness come by personal aggrandizement or by attitudes and actions which help light up a smile on the faces of others? Those who have experienced it say there is no greater happiness than to help others to smile and to smile with them. That does not, however, mean a life of total self-denial. But it does mean an attitude of non-attachment to the things one has or may get in the future. Nor the riches, if they come, to be shunned or spurned, but put to use in a responsible manner. Ashtavakra Samhita significantly points out:

The deluded one often shows aversion to his passions. Where is attachment, where is aversion for him whose love for the body has vanished?

A religious life is also not a life without ambition, but the meaning and object of ambition changes. It is not a life of isolation, indifference or inaction either. One works efficiently and skillfully, but the motive of action undergoes a change and success lies in every duty and every piece of work, even the most insignificant, being done perfectly.

We enjoy the freedom to think, act, and life as we like. None compels us. Ashtavakra puts it:

Remember the truth that running after narrow, selfish desires leads to pain and sorrow, and rising above them in our deeper consciousness to abiding happiness and peace. Now, do as you like.

When somebody questioned J. Krishnamurti what he wanted us people here in this world to do, he replied:

Very simple, Sir: I don’t want anything. That is first. Second: Live, live in this world. This world is so marvelously beautiful. It is our world, our earth to live upon, but we do not live, we are narrow, we are separate, we are anxious…we have no relationship, we are isolated, despairing human beings. We do not know what it means to live in that ecstatic, blissful sense. I say one can live that way only when one knows how to be free from all the stupidities of one’s life. To be free from them is only possible in being aware of one’s relationship, not only with human beings, but with ideas, with nature, with everything.

Relationship involves responsibility, and responsible human beings try to choose their course in life, and each action therein, carefully, living and acting in ways which not only do not hamper but positively support promotion of goodness in the larger life of which they are indivisible parts. The dawning of a sense of such responsibility even in a small measure is the beginning of a life of religion in the finest sense of the word, and it continues to be totally relevant today.