PRACTICE OF RELIGION.*
[* A lecture delivered by S. Sabaratnam Mudaliyar at the Hindu College Hall, Jaffna,
on the 26th September 1912]
"Practice is better than precept" is an old saying which we would do well to keep always prominent in our view. This saying has a large bearing on the subject of my lecture tonight. I have undertaken to address you on the importance of practicing religion, and although I am not competent at all to handle the subject as effectively as its importance requires, still I hope that the few words that I put before you will be of some use at least to some of you.
Every religion has its own practice, and it cannot be said that there is any religion without some practice or other to be observed. Religion, in fact, is a code of practices intended to regulate the life of man and to train him for his ultimate spiritual life. We are all now in the material plane and we all believe in a spiritual plane. Religion is our guide to that plane and it prescribes various practices in order to guide us to that plane. The practices it so prescribes must necessarily be in the material plane as otherwise they will not be accessible to us and will therefore be of no avail to us. We have to attain spirituality through materiality and our march from materiality to spirituality is no doubt an uphill work. The practices provided for this difficult task must have fully in view the nature of the spiritual plane we are aiming at, the nature of the material plane into which we are plunged, and our capacity to get ourselves extricated out of this material plane and to fit ourselves to the spiritual plane. The spiritual plane or the Divine presence which we aspire to attain is beyond the region of imitation while we are confined to that region. Limited as our knowledge is, we cannot have any idea of the unlimited region, and the religious practices, therefore, explain things to us symbolically just as a school boy is taught geography by means of a map, or geometry by means of diagrams. These practices are therefore of great value to us to have any idea of the region beyond and to render us fitted for the enjoyment of the bliss in that region. It will be altogether impossible to get to that place without carefully and rigidly observing the practices prescribed for that purpose. Still, I am sorry to find that the importance of these practices is not realized by some of our people who think that these practices are entirely useless and all that is wanted is to have a correct idea of religious theories and dogmas. Religious practices are intended to enable us to correctly understand the theories of our religion, and to be benefitted by such an understanding. We must understand that theories in themselves have no value unless they are of some practical use to us. We may draw largely on our imagination and build huge air-castles. They cannot be said to be of any use to us unless they are of some help to us in our practical life. Even such theories as are capable of benefitting us practically will not be of any avail to us unless we practice them and realize their benefits in our experience. Experience is the most effective of our instructors and it is by experience our knowledge is cultivated and developed. Our Sastras say that in order to convince us of any truth, we require three kinds of proofs – Sruti, Yukti and Anubava. Although the first two – Sruti and Yukti – are themselves of great help to us in finding out the truth, yet it is the third – Anubava experience – that satisfies us of the acceptability of truths and confirms us in our conviction. Our life is in the main a bundle of experiences and this experience may be said for form and shape our destiny.
The after-life of our children depends largely, if not wholly, on the training we give them, and this training is simply a molding of their habits and manners by practice. Practice contributes little by little to the formation of their habits and manners and even influences their instinct and intellect. Education in general is the sum total of practical instruction, and we know that in every branch of education – be it medical, legal, mechanical, agricultural or commercial – great stress is laid on the practical side of it, and students are required to keep a fixed term in the practice of these professions. Without practice, education cannot be said to be sound at all, and I need hardly say that too much importance cannot be attached to the value of practice.
The value of practice being so high in the secular plane, its importance in the spiritual plane need not be doubted at all. The animal instinct in man is so strong and so powerful that it requires a strict training to tame him for a spiritual life. The wilder an animal is, the greater must be the training required to tame it, and the greater the training is, the sooner it will be tamed.
All religious practices are intended to tame us for a spiritual life, and the Hindu religion could be seen to impose on us a series of such practices in every department of our life, so that religion may always be prominent in our view. Hindu religion is fully alive to the animal instinct in man, and it therefore submits him to a strict discipline, whenever and wherever it can possibly do so. As Hindus we have our religious practices to be observed in our eating and drinking, in our working and resting, in our sleeping and awaking. Little by little and atom by atom are our habits formed; and even the most infinitesimal proportion of every activity of ours in the world – however trivial or however insignificant it may be – contributes in the aggregate to the formation of our habits. We know how tiny microscopic germs develop certain fatal diseases in our body. We cannot despise things because of their magnitude. We know how essential in schools it is that every detail of discipline has strictly to be observed, although the effect of such observance may not be apparent to us at the first sight. We know how careful we are in training our young ones and how even the most insignificant item of their daily life goes in the long run to the formation of their habits and manners. Exactly on the same line are our religious practices, and they may even be said to be of much greater value and importance to us.
Religious practices are intended to train us for the spiritual region, and we are worse than little children in relation to that region. We require a systematic and strict training to qualify us for that region. We are not, of course, able to see how the trivial items of our training help the formation of our habit, but we could boldly assert from the result, that each item, however trivial it may be, contributes its share to the ultimate result. We may call things trivial, but when we look to the cumulative effect of these travails, the result will be found something wonderful. We must understand that a host of our actions affect us without our knowing them, and that we cannot therefore despise any of them because we do not see their effect. The stimulation of our intelligence, it is said, has three states – conscious state, subconscious state and super conscious state. The conscious state is the condition in which we are aware of things when they transpire in the region to which our capacity of knowing can extend. Subconscious state is the state in which our intelligence is affected without our knowledge of it; and super conscious state is the state in which we know things without the aid of our intellectual faculties. These three states are more fully described in our Sastras as the five avastas – Jagra, Svapna, Sushupti, Turiya and Turiyatita. Jagra and Svapna fall under the conscious state, Sushupti and Turiya under the subconscious state and Turiyatita is what is known as super conscious state. In the subconscious state which we may call for the present purpose Turiya, our intelligence is affected so subtly that we are not aware of those affections which collect together and attain a state of fuller of grosser development, and affect our conscious state and produce results that are cognizable by us. These affections are of great value to us as they add materially to our intellect and improve our instinct. In fact every education that we receive may be said to be on the these lines, because the training that we receive therein affects us unawares and makes its own impression in our intelligence. Our religious training is not very different from this. Religious practices contribute little by little to our subconscious intelligence and the result becomes perceptible only after accumulation. It is therefore a great mistake to despise religious practices because we do not see any good resulting out of them all at once.
And again what is our capacity of knowing things after all? The factors that affect us from different directions are innumerable and are of various kinds. We are affected by the atmosphere around us, by the climate we live in, by the people we are associated with by the food we eat, by the heavenly bodies that move in the sky, by our own past karmas and by our free will itself. Have we anything like a definite idea of the effects produced by any of these various causes? We can only be said to know of a very small radius around us – if at all, we can be credited with knowing things. Compare with this the vast unknowable area beyond our tiny knowable area; the unknowable area is unlimited and if for a moment we calmly think over the vast expanse of the region in which we are placed and of which we are quite in the dark, our boast cannot but strike us as an empty boast. Such being our position, we have no right our time honored religious practices on the plea that we do not see any benefit accruing out of them.
It is because our knowledge is limited, we are in need of a religion and revelation; and God, in His unlimited mercy towards us, has given us such a religion and revelation. The revelation prescribes to us the practices we have to observe in the religious plane, and our limited knowledge is not competent to criticize those practices. Our revelation is our guide to the sphere to which our knowledge cannot extend, and we cannot therefore reject the help of that guide and depend on our limited knowledge for our march onward.
We have not only to be guided by our religion and revelation in this our journey onward, but we should pay due regard to the tradition that obtains in the community in which we are placed. Tradition is generally the result of the experience gained by our ancestors, and we may find several very useful instructions embodied in tradition. There is a tendency in our present generation – evidently the result of what we call modern civilization – to despise old ideas and ancient practices. We think that we are far wise and more intelligent than our ancestors. This I should think, is a hollow conceit. It may be that we are a bit wiser than our ancestors of the dark age that has just passed by. It cannot be agreed that the whole human race up till quite recently, were wholly merged in ignorance and that we are the only generation with enlightenment. Bright and dark ages follow each other in rotation - and this is our Yuga dharma. Because we open our eyes after a long slumber of intellectual darkness, we cannot say that the whole world has hitherto been totally blind. No one can deny that the ancient Rome and Greece, India and Persia, were enjoying a civilization which it is not in our power to gauge. Any knowledge handed over to us from our ancestors of the enlightened age should certainly be honored and respected by us and not despised or rejected on the false pretext that we are ahead of them in enlightenment and civilization. The dark age that has just passed by could not have worked our out various religious practices which are pregnant with sound principles and deep meanings. It is not therefore possible to attribute these practices to that age. There is sufficient evidence to show that these practices existed during the bright ages that preceded the dark age that has just passed by, and it would therefore not be possible to reject those practices on the ground that they are the outcome of ignorance, unless we are prepared to contend that the bright ages in which our ancestors lived were themselves ages of ignorance and superstition. If we put forward such a contention, we will only betray our conceit and ignorance. It is a duty incumbent on us as human beings to respect and revere the traditions of past ages wherein is stored a large stock of valuable knowledge unless or until we are convinced after satisfactory enquiry, that such traditions are only the outcome of ignorance and superstition. If we hesitate to accept those traditions and to be benefitted by them, there will be very little difference between us and the brute creation. We must understand that, as human beings, we are largely benefitted by the experience of past generations, and that our present generations commit a serious mistake in despising the experience and wisdom of our ancestors. I do not of course mean by this that we have to blindly follow whatever is laid down by our ancestors; we must certainly reject such practices as are found to be prejudicial to our interests. But this should be no reason to reject them entirely and to despise them as practices belongings to the primitive age.
Religious practices are not only ordained by our revelations but the importance of observing such practices has been fully confirmed by tradition or the experience of our ancestors. The benefit of such observance may not be realized by us at once – and this is but quite natural. A child may not be able to realize the after effects of the training he is subjected to, and the training cannot therefore be dispensed with on that account.
I have already told you that the training that we undergo by means of our religious practices, contribute little by little to our subconscious intelligence. However trivial or imperceptible such contribution may be in individual cases, the effect of the training in the aggregate is very substantial. The mere fact that we do not actually see any benefit arising the utility of those practices. Our intelligence cannot penetrate into the secrets within or into the mysteries without. It has no idea of the infinitesimally small atoms that affect us, or of the immensely large bodies that exert their influence over us. It cannot be said to have any idea of the millions of subtle influences that affect us in innumerable ways or of the enormous gross powers that sway over us. With such a very limited capacity of knowing things, it will be preposterous on our part to reject religious practices on the ground that we do not see any good arising out of them. A friend of mine very aptly compared our intelligence to that of a squirrel which, being frightened by some noise at a distance, stood up on its hind legs, looked round and went away quite satisfied that there was nothing to be feared at. But it did not realize the fact that the extent to which its vision could extend was only a couple of feet around it. Our vision of things is only a little better than that of the squirrel, and still there is no end of our conceit. We cannot see things in this our Bandha state, and hence the necessity of revelation and religion. And when the religion wants you to practice certain formulae with a view to open your eyes, you say "I will not practice any of them before I am able to see" just like the man who refused to get into the water before he learnt to swim. You must have faith in your religion and you must observe the practices described by the religion – and the result will naturally follow.
Another argument used against the utility of religious practices is that there is no use in practicing them without knowing in what way they will be of use to us. It is indeed very curious to find that such arguments are raised only in the religious plane. I am sure people will not dare to argue in this fashion in a great many questions affecting the secular plane. A patient will be considered a blunt fool if he refuses to take a medicine because he does not know its properties or their effects. Spiritual knowledge is on a much higher plane and it will be a presumptive arrogance on our part to expect to know things in the spiritual plane before learning them by means of these practices. Religious practices will have their own effects, although we are not able to see their mysterious capacity. A medicine will have its own effect although we are not aware of its properties. It will certainly be of great advantage to decipher the meanings of our religious practices and to have a clearer idea of their capacity to produce the results they are expected to produce. But what I say is that we ought not to repeat them, because we are not aware of their meanings and capabilities. The practices were formulated by Maha Rishis and Sadhus of olden days who had a clear view of the spiritual region and who were, so to say, inspired by Divine grace. We are not as perfect and clear sighted as they were to have an insight into the mystic region, but it is our duty to observe the rules laid down by them and enjoy their benefits. It is one of the ordinary rules of human nature to be guided by our preceptors, and we cannot in our mistaken notion of liberal views and independent spirit break that law of nature. There are a host of facts – facts too numerous to be reckoned by us – which are beyond the range of our consciousness and which still affect us to a considerable extent. We need not go outside of our body for a proof of this fact. Science tells us that when we see an object or hear a sound, our sense of vision or hearing is flashed, as it were, to our brain center through our nerve power, but we are not in the least conscious of this phenomenon and this is no reason not to recognize that phenomenon. I may say that the factors that affect us in the subconscious plane are comparatively speaking, immensely larger in number than those that affect us in the conscious plane; and it will be no exaggeration to say that the factors that affect us in the conscious plane can bear no comparison to those that affect us in the subconscious plane.
The training that a child undergoes when his intelligence is not developed affects his subconscious intelligence little by little, and the cumulative effect of such training shows itself out ultimately in his conscious intelligence. There is a piece of mystery involved in this department of knowledge culture, and it will be highly interesting to have a patient enquiry into that mystery. Our physical plane has an intimate connection with our mental plane which again is closely wedded to our spiritual plane. So that, anything that affects us in the physical plane will have its own influence on the mental plane, which will communicate that influence to the spiritual plane. The effect may be infinitesimally small, but it is the cumulative influence of these effects during innumerable births that secures to us the final salvation – though slowly but surely. Our religious practices are symbolical of our realization of certain truths, and when we perform those practices, the truths symbolized by them affect our subconscious intelligence, although in a very subtle manner quite imperceptible by our conscious intelligence. When the practice is repeated day by day, the subtle affection of the truth is also repeated in our subconscious intelligence, and the affection grows stronger and stronger by degrees till at last it shows itself out in the conscious intelligence. This phenomenon is fully borne out by the fact that by repeated endeavors made to solve out any intricate problem, the solution at last dawns in our mind, as if by inspiration. We have heard of cases where difficult problems, once given up as beyond solution, have again been solved after some time without any labor. These are instances where our subconscious intelligence comes across truths and communicates them to the conscious intelligence.
We must also bear in mind that every truth is pervaded by Sivasakti, or the force of Divine grace, and this Sivasakti is equally present in the symbol that represent the truth. When the symbol is availed of by a religious student, they come in close contact with that Sivasakti which makes its impression, through the medium of the symbol, on the practitioners, even if they are not aware of the value of that symbol; just as medicine has its own effect although the patient is not aware of its properties.
The training that we acquire by religious practices makes in our subconscious intelligence a subtle impression of the truths they represent, and this impression is of great value to us when we progress in the spiritual plane where it renders our work much easier. Children commit to memory passages without any idea of their meanings, and this committing to memory renders them material help when they are advanced and become competent to decipher their meanings. Religious practices are not only of great help to us for deciphering truths in our advanced state, but they afford to our subconscious intelligence ample scope to come in contact with those truths in a very subtle manner, under the guise of symbols.
Our soul again in Chit in its form, i.e., it is a glow of intelligence, and this intelligence is again said to be of the nature of crystal – fully capable of receiving an impression of whatever it comes in contact with. It is besides Divine in its nature and has the Divine omniscience for its support and mainstay. It has therefore the full capacity of receiving an impression of truths when such truths are made to affect it either directly or indirectly. But the soul being covered with the veil of Pasa, its vision of things is obstructed, and it is therefore the intelligence of the soul has to be stimulated in this Bhanda condition by organs and senses produced out of Maya. It receives impressions of truths through these organs and senses, but if these organs and senses are not powerful enough, such impressions will not be manifest in the conscious plane of that intelligence; but the soul being a pure intelligent Chit in its form, any impression however subtle it may be, will affect the subconscious plane of its intelligence and this is what is known as our துரியக்காட்சி or subconscious vision.
I am afraid I have stepped a bit into the abstract region of Hindu Philosophy; but this has been found necessary to explain the value of religious practices. Apart from the philosophic aspect of religious practices, they have their own value even if we look at then superficially, - a mere services rendered in the name of God. Such services, even in the absence of any understanding of their true meaning or of their intrinsic value, will no doubt create in our mind a leaning towards spirituality and train our wild instinct for a higher state of life.
It is not possible at all to have a practical idea of things without practicing the methods prescribed for acquiring such idea, and this is particularly so in the spiritual plane. Unless we practice patiently and persistently the methods prescribed by religion we cannot be expected to possess the necessary qualifications required for the grades higher up. The religion says that all our practices are but gradatory steps to pure wisdom or Jnanam which only leads us to final salvation:-
"விரும்புஞ்சரியை முதன்மெய்ஞ் ஞானநான்கும்
அரும்புமலர் காய்கனிபோ வன்றோபராபரமே."
O God! Are not the four paths from Sariai to Jnanam just like bud, blossom, green fruit and ripe fruit?
I know that some of our countrymen who are under the influence of Western civilization, and whose mode of life would not permit them the practices prescribed by our religion, think that these practices are only intended for the ignorant mass. This, I should say, is a serious mistake. The practices are intended for all – be they ignorant or enlightened – so long as they are in the material plane. So long as they have in them the Ahankaram and Mamakaram, or in short, so long as they have in them their mental Vrittis, they require a strict training for which these practices are indispensable. Because we are enlightened in a material point of view, we cannot say that we are enlightened in the spiritual plane itself, and that religious practices are not necessary for us. So long as we have in us our self, and so long as we are animated by our will power, we have to tame ourselves by strictly observing these practices, until we realize our oneness with God. According to our religion, these practices are highly essential to us until we lose our self; and we should not give up any of them with our will power unless it be that they drop of themselves unawares. The practices are intended to extricate ourselves from the clutches of our self, and it will be absurd to use the same self and give up the practices in our conceit that they are not necessary for us.
I do not of course mean to say that these practices are the direct means to our final salvations, or that they should be blindly followed without any endeavor on our part to understand their meanings and to adapt ourselves to such meanings. What I say is that these practices are as essential as any theoretical knowledge in the religious plane, or even much more so, in that they render us practically fit for the higher plane where empty theories will not be of any avail. I must say that a pound of practice is worth tons of theories. We must eat a fruit in order to taste it. Religion must be practiced and not theorized.
I will therefore impress on all Hindus who are actually moved by a desire to be benefitted in the spiritual plane, the necessity of strictly observing religious practices; and if they do so, I have no doubt the result will convince them of the value of those practices.
S. Sabaratnam Mudaliyar