What is religion?5 min read

It always begins with the life of a man, or it may be a group of men, apparently human, yet endowed with superhuman vision. Some, like Jesus and Sri Krishna, speak as if they were God Himself ; others, like Moses and Mahomet, as if they were prophets of God. Common to the statements of all, are extremely confident assertions about the nature of the human soul, the meaning of life, and the existence of God behind nature and controlling it—things about which the ordinary human being has no certain knowledge. These teachings assume different forms according to the minds of those for whom they are intended, but they are recognisable as being everywhere based on essentially the same inspiration.

Such is always the foundation of a religion. A superhuman man, or a God born among men, acquires direct knowledge about the fundamental questions of life, about wljich human beings are ordinarily in the dark. From the founder the light gradually spreads. He may cause a few teachings, laws, or verses to be written down, which later become Sacred Books. He may inspire a few disciples with His message. But in one way or another the teachings which He has brought for the guidance of humanity become spread over wide areas,-usually some time after His death.

The Founder and the greatest of His immediate disciples speak the truth from their own personal experience. But in the course of time other men come to propagate the same truths as theoretical opinions which they have not verified in their own consciousness. Sometimes they interpret them incorrectly, insisting on the letter instead of the spirit. At the same time churches or temples are built at which God or the Founder is worshipped ; a ritual is often developed, and an account of the Founder’s life is preserved, not always without invention, which worshippers are required to believe ; and from His teaching, and the sacred books He has left, a body of theoretical doctrine is evolved.

Now, between the life of the Founder and His immediate disciples, and the life of the later followers of His religion, there is a very great difference.

The former spoke from direct knowledge. If they said : “ I and my Father are One ”, or “ Fools disregard Me clad in human form, not knowing My higher Being as the Lord of Beings ”, it was with the same kind of certainty as we say, “ The sun is shining.”

But the later followers and priests do not have this certainty ; they only have theoretical belief, sometimes called faith nowadays. In many religions, of which Christianity is an example, this kind of faith and conformity to certain rituals are all that is required of a worshipper.

The priests in effect say : “ You do and think as we say in this world, and you will enjoy eternal happiness in the next” ; and because of the tremendous appeal of the teachings of the Founder, they are able to command faith and obedience. This kind of unverified faith is most necessary as the first step towards the religion of the Founder,- but if it is considered as itself the sum and total of religion, it is mere superstition.

Of course, worshippers on this basis can and often do, live truly noble and edifying lives, but this depends on their individual efforts to come closer to the object of their devotion. In rare cases the efforts are so strong that the worshipper attains to a share in the certain knowledge of the Founder, and then he is called a saint or mystic. He is the one who has attained the real goal.

The aim of Yoga is to supply the means for converting the “ I believe ” of the orthodox worshipper into the “ I know ” of the saint. The rituals and petitionary prayers of orthodox worship are only a stage in the journey to God. There is no warrant in the recorded sayings of Christ that salvation can be obtained merely by membership of a particular church.

It is said in an Indian Yogic classic, that buried treasures do not manifest themselves at the utterance of the words—“ Come forth ! ”, but first there must be trustworthy information, then digging and removal of stones. The Scriptures of the world are the trustworthy information, but the treasure, which is in our own being, will only be revealed by following their directions and unearthing it from beneath the worldliness and impurity of our minds.

In this simile, Yoga may be compared to the science of digging. It is a system of mental discipline, based on righteous living, universal benevolence, spiritual study, repetition of a name of God, and a practice called meditation.

It is observed among those who practise it with faith and perseverance, that they have developed detachment from their immediate personal concerns, and the ability to pursue an ideal unwaveringly, without desire for reward, and sometimes in the face of great difficulties.

They develop courage and cheerfulness, love of art and literature, peacefulness and gentleness of disposition, also greater and greater reverence for the object of their worship.

Yoga does not make for false piety or sentimentalism because, in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, it gradually clears the mind of cant—that is, of self-consciousness, self-delusion and hypocrisy.

In its higher stages it brings the mind into proximity with God.

Realisation, not belief, is the consummation of religion.

No one needs Yoga who is already perfect or who can attain certain knowledge of truth without it.

But those who can feel unearthly beauty in the Scriptures of the whole world, who want to taste something of this beauty and express it in their own lives, and are aware that their present efforts in this respect might be improved by a directed discipline— such men and women, of any religion or of none, may well  find in Yoga the help they need.