RELIGION AND NATIONAL PROGRESS.*
[* A lecture delivered by Mudaliyar S. Sabharatnam before the Kandy Tamils' Literary Association, on 1st April 1912. – Ed. S. D.]
We read of times when there were constant conflicts between the Church and the State – chiefly in the West – and these conflicts clearly show that religion was exercising a good deal of influence over politics at one time. It must, however, be understood that Church is entirely different from religion as the State is from the laws of a country. Just in the same way as the laws of a country are administered by the State, so are the laws of religion administered by the Church. The one relates to the material wants of man while the other concerns his spiritual wants. It is therefore of great importance that these two branches of human progress should be regulated through two different channels, without the interference of the one with the other. I am not, however, a Macaulay nor a Gladstone to speak on this important subject, but I can only say that the desirability of regulating these two departments of human progress in two different lines was acknowledged by the ancient Hindu, and this is amply borne out by that greatly misunderstood Hindu system as caste distinction. We had our Church and state quite independent of each other and we had no trouble of any conflict between them. Religion was in the hands of the Brahmins, while State was in the hands of the Kshatriyas. Religion is too sacred to be mixed with politics and politics is too secular to be associated with religion. Although the two departments have to be administered and regulated independent of each other, in the interests of their respective sphere of work, yet no one can deny the importance of the one to the other – especially of religion to politics. Other ancestors were fully alive to this importance, and this is why the religious class, viz: the Brahmins were placed over the political class or the Kshatriyas. The caste system would give us a fair idea of the relative importance of the various national factors as attached to them by our ancestors of remote antiquity. The first and foremost factor for the building up of a nationality is religion, then politics, then commerce, then agriculture, arts, handicrafts and labor in general. But these various factors have all to be guided by religion which has an enormous influence on their due development.
But at present there seems to be a good deal of misunderstanding among some of our so-called reformers. They seem to think that religion belongs exclusively to the spiritual plane and that it is a great obstacle to our material advancement. This, I should think, is a great mistake. Religion is not intended only for those who have given up the world altogether and have transported themselves to the region of spirituality; nor does it demand of us that we should all give up the world abruptly and devote our sole attention to our spiritual wants. Religion is intended not only for those in the spiritual plane but to those in the material plane as well – even more in the interests of the latter than in those of the former. The main object of religion is to regulate the conduct of those in the material plane and to guide them in their various walks of life, consistently with the final end to which they are all destined. In fact, our Sastras say that to one advanced in spirituality there is no need for religion:-
"Caste ends where religion begins,
Religion ends where realization of truth begins,
This is the one end that ends not.
Religion may be said to be a mediator between materiality and spirituality, and it protects the interests of man in both the planes, and opens to him away by which his interests in the one may not clash with those in the other. In the highest sphere of religion there are no hard and fast rules and it imposes no restriction in that sphere which may be said to be the spiritual plane proper – and it is in this sense the Sastras say that to one advanced in spirituality there is no need for religion. But it is in the secular plane the necessity of religion is keenly felt and it is therefore a great mistake to suppose that religion is opposed to material progress.
We know that if we allow our desire for material aggrandizement to have its own way without any check, it will run riot and the state of a society under such circumstances will be a conglomeration of chaos and confusion. If every man is allowed to do all what he can for the furtherance of his own interests in the material plane, without any let or hindrance, there could be no order in society, no safety of the weak against the strong. What we call the moral laws are highly essential for the well-being of a society, and these laws cannot be enforced on people who have no sense of religion. Religion defines and marks the demarcation of good and evil and details the rewards therefore not only in our afterlife but in this life as well. The punishment of an individual by the society could be averted one way or the other, but it is not possible to escape the punishment prescribed by religion. The influence of religion has therefore a greater effect on society than any amount of social laws and regulations. We could see from the history of mankind that it is the nation that had a religion that went high up in the ladder of civilization. "The whole of Western civilization" says Svami Vivekananda "will crumble to pieces in next 50 years if there is no spiritual foundation". The importance of our duty to our country, the importance of our duty to our fellow-creatures, the importance of our observing the moral and social laws are all founded on religious basis, and if religion is taken away from our idea, the whole of our social fabric will come down and be smashed to pieces. If man is to be governed by sheer force without any sense of religious feeling in him, it will be nothing less than governing a spirited horse with a double bridle. Man is by nature endowed with a religious instinct and it is this instinct that has largely to be availed of in regulating his conduct. Man is not a block of matter nor is he an organism of a low order; he has a predominant quantity of spirit in him and it is this spirit that will have a greater effect in his general career in whatever plane he may be than any blind material force.
We know that even when we promote our material interests, the course we adopt therefore should be governed by moderation, otherwise our anxiety might get better of us and strand us in some shoal or other. Such a moderation we cannot be expected to exercise, unless we are guided by the sense of religion. Our desire to rise in the material plane may at time be greatly weakened, if not totally extinguished, when it meets with repulses and failures. It is spirituality that would revive our spirit on such occasions, give us hopes and keep us in spirit. And again in every nation, and in every country and at all times, the ignorant mass by far outnumber the enlightened and educated community and it is this latter alone who can appreciate, if they appreciate at all, the necessity of our social and moral duties; while in the case of the rest who form the vast majority it is religion that nurses a sense of this duty in their heart and this is an important factor – perhaps one of the most important factors – in the building a nationality.
"It is language and religion" says Prof. Max Muller "that make a people; but religion is even a more powerful agent than language". He further says "Perhaps the most single confirmation of the view that it is religion even more than language which supplies the foundation of nationality, is to be found in the history of the Jews – The Chosen People of God".
Religion is the basis of morality, religion is the basis of loyalty, religion is the basis of love and religion is the basis of justice. These are factors that are highly essential for the building of any nationality, and it is of utmost importance that these factors should grow spontaneously in the heart of man, rather than being forced on him by state laws and communal customs. He must feel their importance, their necessity and above all their merits which can only be implanted in him by religion.
Such a feeling must be natural and not artificial to any extent. This natural feeling can only be engendered by religion, and without this feeling our society will be an everlasting battle ground for competitors. Religion is the regulator of our material progress, and if not for religion, our material desires may grow wild and prove inimical to their own interests themselves. This is why religion is mixed up in any and every branch of our social activities and secular movements among the Hindus of India. It is not possible to enforce discipline without religion, and discipline, in whatever form it may be, is a religion in itself; and when it is associated with the idea of Godhead, it gains great strength and contributes really to our material advancement. Any instruction given to our young ones without a religious basis cannot take root, nor can it withstand the temptations of worldly evils, and, all moral feelings will be entirely swept out of their mind as by a monsoon-blast, if not firmly rooted, manured and watered by religion.
And again in our anxiety to enjoy the material world, we should not lose sight of the ultimate object for which we are called in here – our spiritual interests. The material progress is only a preliminary step to the ultimate end, and it will be a great folly that in attending to the preliminaries we lose sight of the ultimate end. The preliminaries themselves cannot be worked out satisfactorily, if we do not have prominently in our view the object for which those preliminaries are intended. The material world is so planned by the great God as to be a guide to the ultimate end of spiritual realization, and if we dismiss from our view that end and confine our attention to our material benefits alone, we will fail miserably even in our endeavor to promote our material interests, for no scheme could be worked out satisfactorily, if the object for which it is intended is ignored or neglected. I say that we will fall even in a material point of view, if we overlook our spiritual gain. The material worlds will be found by every earnest thinker to be so planned as to remind him, at every step, of the spiritual world, and if that great object is forgotten and ignored and we try to progress in the material plane, for the sake of materiality I say, our endeavors will be a huge failure. It will be something like our present day Church-going. It is, I think, a more or less well known fact that our Church-going, as it constitutes at present, is practiced mainly as a matter of fashion, if not that of a show. Here lies the evil of materiality. In our anxiety to enjoy the material world, we lose sight of the object of Church-going, and we convert the practice into quite a different channel. We make it a source of material enjoyment, and I will not be surprised that if the existing state of things are allowed to continue, our Churches are one day turned into public markets or show fairs, or even worse – wooing marts – and if the state of things were further to advance, the Church may even become the battle ground for rival suitors. That will be the end to which materialism will lead us if we dismiss from our view the importance of spirituality.
It is a great mistake to suppose that religion teaches asceticism ore renunciation and that it is therefore inimical to the interests of material progress. Religion does not teach asceticism or renunciation to all indiscriminately. These are only intended for those that are fully ripe for such lives – for those who have the necessary craving for spirituality. In the case of the rest who form the bulk of the human race, religion regulates their course in the material plane, and it is here that religion is even more essential to man than in the spiritual plane proper. Where the spirituality inclined few serve as object lessons to the materially inclined mass in various ways in the material plane itself. The duties of asceticism and renunciation are not imposed on the materially inclined mass, but on the contrary they are interdicted from adopting those lines. Any attempt on their part to assume these lives in the absence of the necessary aptitude will not only ruin them but will be a source of great danger to the public at large. They must exhaust their material tendency before they can be considered fit for a spiritual life, which, if taken up prematurely will be like putting the cart before the horse. But this is no reason for the materially inclined mass to overlook religion altogether and to allow their material cravings to run riot. It should be kept within its legitimate bounds, and this cannot be done without religion. Keeping our material desires within the legitimate bounds, does not mean that we should not endeavor to rise in the social scale and improve our modes and methods of life in this world, i.e., improve our arts and sciences and other sources of our material happiness. It is only meant to show that we should guard ourselves against the evils of the world, when we are engaged in our material development, and, at the same time we should not lose sight of the importance of our spiritual interests. We may make as much advance as we can in the material plane and help our fellow creatures with spiritual love. It is in fact for the very purpose of enjoying the world and exhausting our secular tendency we are placed here. It is only when we have enjoyed the world to our hearts content and have become disgusted with it after enjoying the various phases of its so-called pleasures, we can turn our attention to the spiritual side. Enjoy the world as much as you can religion does not prevent it. If you have the means at your disposal you may live in mansions, you may indulge in rich apparels, you may drive in a pair or in motor cars, you may eat sumptuously and you may and you must apply your riches to the best advantage of yourself and your neighbors. If you do not do so religion considers it a sin. If you do not live up to your means you will be called a miser, and miserly habits are counted among the worst sins of men. But religion wants you not to be extravagant and not to indulge in evil pleasures, and it wants you at the same time not to lose sight of the spiritual side of your existence in your exultation over worldly pleasures. Our material pleasures are to be bridled by the reins of religion as otherwise our material cravings would get the better of us and would launch us into the realm of wickedness, whereby our material interests will be the first to suffer. In our enjoyments of the world we have great many dangers to be avoided which would not only render our ultimate spiritual achievements very difficult, but will go a long way to blast all our material prospects themselves, if our desire is allowed to grow unchecked. Religion therefore interferes as a go-between between the material and spiritual sides of our existence, and regulates our course in the material plane in such a way as to lead us ultimately into spirituality and at the same time to help a healthy growth of our material interests. Religion fully allows the enjoyments of material pleasure for those who are under the sway of material cravings, but it only wants that all material pleasures should be boiled in the fire of religion before they are enjoyed. If you are fond of materiality, religion freely allows you to enjoy it, but it only wants that a bit of the antidote of spirituality be mixed into it in order to kill the germs of its evil tendencies; and when you are a bit advanced, it gradually increases the proportion of spirituality and asks you to take it as a medicine mixing it up with a large quantity of materiality as Anupana and rendering it palatable to you. We know that when habitual drunkards are attacked with any disease as the result of their intemperate habits, doctors at times prescribe medicines to be taken along with drinks for which the patients have a craving. Similarly religion administers spirituality under material coatings, and when we relish the medicine the coating is done away with and we are given the medicine alone. This is the course religion adopts for leading us towards the spiritual plane and this will be quite apparent to anyone who has carefully observed the system of the Hindu religion.
It is true that in the strict sense of spirituality worldly pleasures are condemned by religion; but this condemnation is only intended for those who are qualified to renounce the world and not to the mass. However painful such condemnation may be to those who have made themselves slaves to worldly pleasures, yet it is the truth and the truth cannot be concealed for the sake of the transitory worldly enjoyments. The truth is that and still if we are unable to realize that truth, we are not prevented from enjoying those pleasures but we are only enjoined to be careful that we are not led astray by those pleasures and forget altogether the importance of spirituality which we have ultimately to attain.
Enjoyment of the material world by the materially inclined people is not condemned, but on the contrary it is freely and fully allowed – but only under certain conditions – conditions necessary to safeguard the material interests themselves – and at the same time to promote the ultimate spiritual interests. The materially inclined mass are even considered in a way helpful to those of spiritual inclination and our great sage and philosopher says.
"The Grihasta is a material help to the other three Asramites (including the Sanyasins who have given up the world)."
So that it is quite apparent that religion does not prohibit secular life altogether, although it considers materiality a great stumbling block in the path of spirituality. Spirituality in the sense of renunciation cannot be taken up by all, and those who are not qualified for it are undoubtedly to enjoy the world, such enjoyments being regulated by the rules of religion which make ample provision for those enjoyments.
Religion details the duty of man according to his psychic development and to the different stages of life in which he is placed; and it rigidly enforces the golden rule that every man should do his duty unflinchingly. It is of course the duty of a man who is high up in the rung of spirituality and who does not therefore care an iota for the world – who is a Sanyasin in the true sense – not to resist evil. But to the Grihasta – to the man of the world – it is his paramount duty to see that every evil is nibbed in the bud and its influence checked and neutralized. But in doing so, he must act on the lines laid down by religion for the purpose, for the people of his own standard or Asrama and he should not wander away from those lines and himself commit another evil in his attempt at checking one evil. He has a duty to perform as a Grihasta and his duty must be performed by him to the fullest possible extent. He is not to follow the rules laid down for others and fail to perform his own duty. As a Grihasta he has to improve his material resources, and he should not hesitate to do so, because a Sanyasin is forbidden from troubling himself with worldly cares. Neighborly love is a duty imposed on the different Asramites alike, but the mode and manner of cultivating this love may be different with the different Asramites. The Grihasta has himself to cultivate this love in his own lines, and he being in the material plane, his sphere of cultivating this love is in that plane; and he has therefore a duty to contribute, as far as he can, towards the material advancement of his neighbors and fellow creatures.
Although we are thus permitted to enjoy the world under the guidance of religion and serve our immediate wants, we should not be altogether indifferent to the spiritual side of our existence and to the necessity of laying out something for our futurity. This is the ultimate object of our existence, and it will be the height of folly to overlook the main object and to be engrossed in the preliminaries. We may not be in fit state just at present to devote our undivided attention to that main object, but we should try by degrees to qualify ourselves for the attainment of that end, and religion is highly essential in this respect. Religion serves us a double purpose. Religion not only guides our course in our material progress but at the same time it trains us gradually for the spiritual realization which we are ultimately to attain. If religion is neglected, not only our spiritual interest but our material interest themselves will suffer and this will be more so with us the Hindus who, as a nation, have a religious instinct. The progress of any nation depends a good deal on their natural instinct and, innate tendency, and the course adopted for their progress should be on lines best suited for them. It is not possible, with the Hindus, to overlook the importance of religion, and if you relegate religion from them they may perhaps meet with an untimely death, religion being as it were their life principle. Svami Vivekananda saw the real position of affairs in this respect and this is what he says:- "We have seen that our vigor, our strength, nay our national life is in our religion. I am not going to discuss whether it is right or not, whether it is correct or not, whether it is beneficial or not, in the long run to have this vitality in religion, but for good or evil it is there: You cannot get rid of it… You are bound by it and if you give it up you are smashed to pieces. This is the life of our race and it must be strengthened. You have withstood the shocks of centuries simply because you took great care of it. You sacrificed everything for it. Your forefathers underwent everything boldly, even death itself, but preserved religion. Temple after temple was broken down by the foreign conqueror, but no sooner had the wave passed than the spire of the temple rose up again. Some of the old temples of South India and those like "Somanath" will speak volumes of wisdom than any amount of books. That is the national mind. That is the life-current. Follow it up and it leads to glory. I do not mean to say that political or social improvements are not necessary, but what I mean is this that they are secondary here and religion is primary. The Indian mind is first religious than anything else.
Any course that is adopted to raise the Hindu nationality in the material plane must be on a religious basis. Every man must be given a food to which he is naturally suited or accustomed by his habits and manners; and the material development of the Hindu nation must be under the dictates and guidance of religion. Without a religious coating Hindus cannot swallow the material pills. "With us", says Svami Vivekananda again, "religion is the only ground along which we can move. We know that to the Indian mind there is nothing higher than religious ideals: this is the keynote of the Indian life, and we can only work in the lien of least resistance."
And again what is nationality? How is it devoted in a comprehensive sense? Is it by the country occupied by a certain people? Is it by the race to which they belong? Is it by the language they speak? Is it by the religion they profess? Or is it by the interests they have all in common? This is no doubt a question that involves some difficulty in its solution – at least as regards India to which we practically belong. We may however for our present purpose grant that our common interests in general have to decide the question of our nationality, and of such interests religion no doubt plays an important part.
Religion is a very strong bond by which individuals and communities are banded up together. Religion fosters and nurses a feeling of unity, much more than any other similar means and it may be said to be the main string which connects together the various links of the Indians' National chain. It cements us together very effectively and enables us to work harmoniously as children of the same parents. If we neglect this important element of unity, our nation cannot be expected to have a vigorous growth – we cannot construct the edifice of nationality, and we cannot realize the importance of brotherly love, and love to our mother country. If we are indifferent to our creator and to the method adopted for adoring Him we cannot be expected to love our country or to have any regard to the mode and method of cultivating this love. We should not however lose sight of the fact that the more a nation advances the more varied will be their ideas and opinions, especially as regards religion of which it may not be possible with all to advance any definite theory with anything like scientific accuracy. This is a necessary evil which we must all be prepared to provide for. However diversified our ideas may be in the matter of religion we cannot fail to find many common grounds in the religious ideas of our nation, more general and more allied to each other than in the case of alien faiths. These common grounds, coupled with a spirit of toleration and respect to liberty of thoughts, would be a strong element of unity in variety to safeguard our national interests. Surely this license should not be abused and made applicable even to alien faiths. They cannot be expected to afford us any material common ground of agreement so that we may be enabled to work consistently with our national interests as in the case of the indigenous creeds of our country, which are but the offshoots of the same mother religion. As a nation, we have our own individuality and this individuality will be very seriously affected if we are indifferent to our religious unity – a very important factor that contributes towards the stability of any nationality.
I must in conclusion point out that the importance of religion as a national factor especially with the Hindus cannot be too forcibly expressed. I know that the material tendency of our present generation is daily on the advance, and they seem to have been greatly enamored of the Western material progress. They evidently think that our spiritual tendency is a great drawback to our material progress, but they do not realize the fact that it is because we neglected our religion – it is because we did not act up to the tenets of our religion – that we have come down to our present level. The West may be far ahead of us in material progress without much of spirituality with them; but we do not belong to the west, nor could we say that the west will be able to maintain their progress without a spiritual foundation. As Svami Vivekananda has tersely put it "the whole Western civilization will come down to pieces in the next fifty years if there is no spiritual foundation." The Western mind is certainly different from the Eastern. Mind cannot proceed in any direction without being guided by religion. The Eastern mind has been lying dormant for a considerable period and now that it has awakened a bit after a long slumber, it thinks that, if religion could be thrown away, the material world can be better enjoyed. No doubt the Eastern religious ideas and practices are great obstacles in the way of our enjoying the world as the West does; but we must understand that the Western material enjoyment is incompatible with the Eastern spiritual instinct. We think that our religion should be simplified if at all it is to be followed. No doubt this will be great convenience for us to enjoy the world as the West does; but we must bear in mind that if our religious constitution framed by the sages of immense experience and forethought is interfered with, its spell will be lost and it will have very little effect on us. I fully admit that our religion requires in many respects – that it has a good deal of crust adhering to it by its passing through various influences during a very long antiquity. But we must be careful in reforming our religion in that we do not mutilate it – that we do not deform it in our anxiety to reform it. It would be far better to leave the religion alone as it is, instead of crippling it, in our desire to bring it on a par with Western religion. Our religion, it is true, is far more strict and far more exacting than Western religions. But if religion has any value with us we must not grudge to follow its rules and we must not try to imitate the religion of the West which in fact are not suited to us at all. We do not want to be Westerners, but we want to be Easterners – we want to be Hindus – and we want to maintain our tradition and nationality. This object cannot be achieved without following the lines best suited for the purpose that is by working on the lines of our own religion.
C. V. S.