Religion on a Slippery Slope of Influence

Swami Gunottarananda

An often-quoted story goes: a king announced to his courtiers that he was going to organise a grand yajna and a massive stock of milk was required to pour in the sacrifcial fire. He requested his ministers to bring their share of milk from personal stock the next day before dawn and pour in an empty drum which would be kept ready in the palace, the king assured. The next morning the king himself went to check the stock of milk. To his utter dismay, he found the drum was empty. No one had brought milk. He set up an inquiry and gathered that each of his ministers had thought that the other members would empty their share of milk in the drum and as such he himself was not required to do what was expected of him, especially when it was difficult to see each other in the early hours of dawn, and bear witness. It was a sorry state of affairs. The religion and its values had failed right in the temple of politics, and right under the nose of the king.Almost every day we hear debates where religion is placed in contention with other institutions of society. Almost everyone says in unison that religion should not interfere with politics,or market and so on. Nevertheless, the fact that this debate never stops proves that religion is invincible in its influence. World leaders from the fold of religion are seen to move with geopolitical agenda. Similar cases are seen with the leaders who move with religious concerns while representing their state. Other powerful institutions, like the state, too are accused and debated for interfering with different institutions of society. Although we wish other institutions the best we will focus our concern on religion in the following passages.

There is no denying religion stands on a slippery slope of the social structure. From every point on this slope, its influence can move in any direction—it can go up, down or sidewise in the valley. Swami Vivekananda had indicatedthis slippery nature of religious influence when he said that the teachings of Lord Krishna is accepted by the Western countries and the teachings of Jesus came to be adopted by Indians.Long after Swami Vivekananda had passed away, Winston Churchill was appointed as a head in anticipation of manoeuvring his state in the second world war and destroying the enemies. For the Indian freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi had adopted the philosophy of turning the other cheek when one is slapped. We can recall the thirtieth verse from the third chapter of the Gita, ‘yuddhaya vigatajvarah; fight free from mental fever’ was Krishna’s teaching, given on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. And Matthew (5, 38-39) reads, ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’. India didn’t adopt Krishna’s teachings and Western world rejected Jesus’s. Of course both worlds loved their Lord. But such is the nature of religious influence that it looks like it operates on a slippery slope.

It is hard to believe that Swami Vivekananda would not have gained his audience if providence had not brought him to the US. Even before his birth the shiploads of artillery, battalion, and troops were being sent to manage day-today affairs in India. Why could a few thousand audiences from the West have not set sail and provided Swami Vivekananda a personal audience in Kolkata itself ? No it doesn’t have any reference, it’s just a notion, it can be rejected. But even with a pinch of salt, it is hard to swallow that a similar impact could be generated within India, had he not made the US an epicenter of his preachings. It seems he was aware of this slippery slope even during his formative years. To generate the maximum impact within his country, a political leader, Netaji Subhash Chadra Bose, left his country forever but the ripples he created abroad became the immediate cause of Indian freedom back home.

The energy back in India doesn’t move in steps and strides. She sets forth the waves of change in leaps and bounds. Her movement can cover the events standing at a tidal diference of time, and is capable of turning not only the tables but even the tectonics. Perhaps a few brahmanas in Indian hermitage had discovered the ten digits from zero to nine. Those digits traveled to Europe en route Arab countries. And by the time they reached Silicon Valley, in their binary form they took a gigantic shape and made a digital world of a virtual reality. Through the process of Positional Numeral Systems, Algorithms, Data Representation, Programming and with the help of the forces of the market the Western endeavor was once again ready to overpower the East. Network of optical fibers became the new silk routes for commerce. The camels could walk only on the roads, the ships could sail only in the sea, but this new network ran like nerves do in the human body. It hardly required any permit, license, or authentication to do business overseas. Every sensitive person from his rural background in the East had wondered if they would be run over yet again. But they rose to the occasion this time with a sense of confidence. Indian kids too were seen to rub houlders with their Western counterparts in that world and show an amazing flair with things digital. Perhaps without any awareness that it was actually they who had once discovered the digits themselves. How slippery the slope of influence in any walk of life!

In the spiritual world too, with the benefit of hindsight, we find that Swami Vivekananda also did a very peculiar thing as regards preaching the universal ideals shown by Sri Ramakrishna.To all of us of the common run, Sri Ramakrishna’s personal life and experiences look very difficult to relate to. Do they not? What did Swami Vivekananda do with his teachings and transcendental experiences? He made them applicable to all. He made an independent path to reach out to the lofty ideals he observed in his master, Sri Ramakrishna, broadcasted it all over theworld and called it Karma Yoga. The effort was,through the path of Karma Yoga, to join the master’s teachings with the most indispensable necessity of human beings—the necessity to work. At one side is the transcendental experiences of Sri Ramakrishna, his daily conversations with his deity which are recorded somewhat in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and on the other side is the indispensable necessity to work that is made ever more incumbent on each and every individual in society. Karma Yoga provided the spiritual link to all of them, to even those who thought they were a non-believer. Our daily bread doesn’t come from God. Everyone has to work to earn a bread or feed the near and dear one, even if he or she be a believer in God. None can escape from work. A daily commuter or a working lady knows the tale. Her kid is hungry back home, she must work. The kid will die if she chooses not to. Earlier the scenario was not so horrible as far as basic survival and sustenance were concerned. Thanks to the present-day economy. That everyone works is not a new observation through the lenses of philosophy. Interested can reflect on the fifth verse of the third chapter of the Gita, ‘nahi kashchit kshanamapi jatu tishthatyakarmakrit; Verily none can ever rest for even an instant.’ But look at the swings of the cascading influence Swami Vivekananda himself made. Even those who do not have time and mind, and their number is ever on the increase, to explore the spiritual world through the conventional path of knowledge and devotion which we see in Sri Ramakrishna in abundance, can now be equally spiritual, if they wish, through their daily commutes and chores. We are not focussing on karma yoga per se. We are focussing on the swings of the massive influence of religion that Swami Vivekananda had cast on the world all over. And yet, he had given to Alasinga on 2 November 1893, a very strange advice, ‘The Hindu must not give up his religion, but must keep religion within its proper limits and give freedom to society to grow.’ Keeping in the view that Swami Vivekananda too made religion incumbent on everyone just as the contemporary economy did with work, a sensitive heart struggles to understand the necessary demarcation between religion and other affairs of life. How to confine the influence on such a slippery slope where things tend to be mutual? When Gautama Buddha brought mass appeal to his religion, he had to compromise with the pristine purity and longevity of his mission. And when Sri Shankaracharya tried to maintain thepristine purity of the religion, its appeal on the masses had to suffer. How mutual and interconnected are these things on the slippery slopes of religion? Every vibrant brain has to, one time or the other, cogitate on the issue—where and how to find a firm foothold on this slope. During all such confusions, the safest thing to do is to look back and read the life and behavior patterns of the incarnation of the time and draw conclusions thereby.

A Note of Conclusion cum Caution

Before it can work upon the fabrics, a thread has to pass through the eye of a needle. If God is gracious he can even pass a camel through that eye. But in any case the eye remains the gateway. For its effect—massive or miniature, collective or singular—religion has to pick up an individual soul and pass its influence through it. This is the safest conclusion we can derive from the life and
teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. The individualhuman-heart is that eye. It is incumbent upon individuals to decide they should become religious or not. It is incumbent upon religion to make individual a spiritual person. Once the individuals are spiritual enough, they can arrange, rearrange, and bring about necessary changes in group, community or society. Thus spiritually transformed individuals will know how to choose good from bad, what is the overarching purpose of life, and how to create an ascending order in society to reach human beings’ ultimate goal and fulfilment. For religious influence, the focus is on the individual and not on the community, society or a group. ‘Society is nothing but numbers of these individuals grouped together’ says Swami Vivekananda and adds, ‘and as it applies to the individual and his eternal relations, it must necessarily apply to the whole of society, in whatever condition it may be at any given time. Thus we see that there is always the necessity of spiritual religion for mankind.Man cannot always think of matter, however pleasurable it may be’.Religion is free to influence every individual on earth, but it will adopt the method of Religion versus man. Each individual retains the freedom to choose whether to embrace religion or not. Then there is no interference, any other institution can suffer from.Once the individuals are already religious in its true sense, they can decide what they will do with their politics, market, and state or other forces in society. And this is the reason why education and religion as defined by Swami Vivekananda acquired the texture of man-making. Readers can recall, in his definition, education was a man-making education. Religion too.Since we have, from our readings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda’s life, concluded where our foothold will be on carrying on the works of religion, a word of caution from Swami Vivekananda won’t be out of place. From our personal experiences too we understand that the matters of heart, where the religion functions and passes through into the world of its mass influence, is oftentimes fraught with danger and fear. Swami Vivekananda had observed in his master’s behavior that he never tried to force religion on those who didn’t deserve it or were not ready for it. Almost all of Sri Ramakrishna’s companions with whom he enacted his divine play were especially evolved people earmarked by Divine Mother. It was safe to enact the divine play with them. In many cases, Divine Mother used to show him that such and such person, who would keep his company in order to enact his spiritual play, belonged to the group of one or the other previous incarnations of God on earth. He used to exercise religion on others with utmost caution. He never went for the mass influence of religion on others. For him the religion adopted the method of divine versus man, and moved man to man by man’s own will. He himself undertook religious austerities or sadhana for a prolonged period of time and thus endorsed that the onus is on us to put forth the right effort and become spiritual through the right methods. So to recall Swami Vivekananda’s advice to us all:

‘Every attempt at control which is not voluntary, not with the controller’s own mind, isnot only disastrous, but it defeats the end. The goal of each soul is freedom, mastery—freedom from the slavery of matter and thought, mastery of external and internal nature. … Beware how you unknowingly bring another to ruin. True,some succeed in doing good to many for a time,by giving a new trend to their propensities, but at the same time, they bring ruin to millions by the unconscious suggestions they throw around, rousing in men and women that morbid, passive,hypnotic condition which makes them almost soulless at last. Whosoever, therefore, asks any one to believe blindly, or drags people behind him by the controlling power of his superior will, does an injury to humanity, though he may not intend it.

‘All over the world there have been dancing and jumping and howling sects, who spread like infection when they begin to sing and dance and preach; they also are a sort of hypnotists. They exercise a singular control for the time being oversensitive persons, alas! often, in the long run, to degenerate whole races. Ay, it is healthier for the individual or the race to remain wicked than be made apparently good by such morbid extraneous control. One’s heart sinks to think of the amount of injury done to humanity by such irresponsible yet well-meaning religious fanatics.They little know that the minds which attain to sudden spiritual upheaval under their suggestions, with music and prayers, are simply makingthemselves passive, morbid, and powerless, and opening themselves to any other suggestion, be it ever so evil. Little do these ignorant, deluded persons dream that whilst they are congratulating themselves upon their miraculous power to transform human hearts, which power they think was poured upon them by some Being above the clouds, they are sowing the seeds of future decay, of crime, of lunacy, and of death. Therefore, beware of everything that take away your freedom. Know that it is dangerous, and avoid it by all the means in your power.’