RELIGIONS: QUARRELS AND CONVERSIONS

RELIGIONS: QUARRELS AND CONVERSIONS

THE SOLUTIONS OFFERED BY SREE NARAYANA GURU

A paper presented at the National Seminar on “Sree Narayana Guru : Reformation Movements – A Historico Philosophical Perspective” held at the Dravidian University, Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh, on 30th & 31st October, 2008.

                                    By Smt. Sathya Bai Sivadas
                                    Lecturer (Rtd.), A.P. Educational Service
                                    President , 
                                    Sree Narayana Educational and Cultural Society
                                    Hyderabad.

Religions: Quarrels and Conversions

“……. Though there is nothing that has brought man more blessing than religion, there is nothing that has brought more horror than religion . It has brought more peace and love, at the same time fierce hatred also. It has made the brotherhood of man more tangible but created more bitter enmity between one man and another. It is the inspiration behind a number of charitable institutions like hospitals for animals too, at the same time there is nothing else that deluged the world with more bloodshed, starting with the crusades and the persecution of Jews……”. – Swami Vevekananda

What is this religion?
In Latin “re” means back, again, “ligare” means to bind, to unite. Etymologically religion means that which binds one back to one’s origin. So the goal of all religions is to bind man to God, to unveil your real self, to discover your true nature, to draw out the divinity in you.

Religion is generally understood as the path for man’s search for his destiny, search for God, search for the Ultimate Truth, the rites of man’s communion with God. Different people have defined religion in different ways 

1. According to Swami Vevekananda “Religion is a question of fact not of talk, we have to analyze our own souls and find what there is. We have to understand it, and realize what we understand. That is religion. No amount of talk will make religion.”.

2. “Authentic religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos can pour into human existence”. 
Huston Smith -Religions of Man.

3. Even the atheist Bernard Shaw said: “Religion is the only motive force for humanity” whereas Karl Marx dismissed it as the “opium of the people”.

4. Narayana Guru gives a very lucid definition. “The human mind went on trying to find answers to the mysteries of life, death and the universe. Answers to these spiritual problems evolved by great seers have become religions”.

Origin of religions:
The power of speech and the presence of religions are the two major characteristics that distinguish the human beings ( homo sapiens) from other animals. In the course of human evolution, these two must have developed along with the ability to think. The primitive man while observing the mysteries of life and death, the powers of nature like fire, rain, wind, thunder, earthquakes, floods, the sun and moon etc., over which he had no control, must have imagined a superior power over all these and himself which he named God. He viewed that power with awe, a complex feeling of love, respect, fear, anger and hatred. This complex feeling, in the course of evolution of human thought, underwent a dichotomy. One set of people tried to appease these forces of nature through appeals and propitiatory rites, while another set experimented with external means to control these. In course of time, the first set developed religion, philosophy and priests. The second set produced science, scientists and rational thinking. This is the beginning of religion and science The divisions of gnanam and vignanam came to be established. gananam is wisdom, the direct spiritual illumination which is clearly the field of religion, vignanam is detailed rational knowledge of the principles of existence which is the realm of science. 

But we have to understand that science and religion are not contradictory. They are only complementary. They are only two extreme wavelengths in the spectrum of human knowledge , which consists of the relationless Absolute at one end and the phenomenal world at the other end. The former is transpersonal experience, while the latter is purely experimental .

Structure of Religion:
Dr. Gavin Flood divides all major religions of the world into two types, the tree type and the river type. The tree type, starts with the teachings of one great seer, like the trunk of a tree and in course of time proliferates into of a number of sects and spreads all over like the branches of a tree. Religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism etc, belong to this category. The river type starts as a number of a small canals, which finally join together to form a mighty river. Hinduism, the beginning of which cannot be traced, started with a number of faiths and rituals like Vedic religion, Shaivism, Vaishnarism etc, and finally came to be joined together as one great religion, Hinduism.

Religious Universals:
Whatever be the origin and source of religions, a scientific study of religions reveal some common factors, the religious universals. They are theology, philosophy, mythology and rituals, which could be arranged in four concentric rings in a pyramidal shape. These aspects are conceived and understood by people of varying intellectual levels.

Theology:
Occupies the topmost and central position in these circles. It is the attempt to define the indefinable, what the primitive man felt as the superior power which came to be defined as Godhead, Ultimate Truth, Reality, the Absolute etc.

Philosophy:
Is the attempt to relate the phenomenal world of matter with individual consciousness and a realm of imagination which is much beyond this mundane world of eating, sleeping and reproducing. Human beings have to know this not by inference, but by intuition. 

Mythology: 
Is the medium through which philosophy is brought to the common man, whose intellect is more practical than theoretical. Universally, mythology is the stories of human beings, divine beings and semi-divine beings interacting in a highly imaginary realm posing questions to humanity to ponder and find solutions to the esoteric human destiny. That is why there are some basic common factors in all mythologies for eg. human characters with super human powers, and divine characters with human frailties are there in all mythologies. “These holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious minds from the quarters of the spirit unknown to the daylight consciousness. They are telling us of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it will be good for us to know. They are not historical they speak not of outside events, but of themes of imagination”, -Joseph Campbell says in the “The Myths We Live by”.

Narayana Guru explains the meaning of mythology in simple terms. “ The stories of mythology are highly symbolic narrations to illustrate the search for meaning in spiritual matters, or parables and fables for codes of conduct. They are highly magnified through the lens of poetic imagination, so that they look absurd to the modern mind. Mythologies are bound to differ because people think differently and interpret differently.”

Rites and Rituals.
“Myths are the mental supports of rites and rituals, and rites are the physical enactment of myths”
                                                                        - Joseph Campbell in “The Myths We Live by”

Rites and rituals make the outermost fringes of religious practices which are observed collectively by the society and individually by the common man. Though many of the rites and rituals in the human society are of sociological origins, they are given a religious tone, and considered external expressions of religious practices. Let us examine, three rites observed by humanity all over the world. They are the rites of funerals, weddings, puberty or birth.

If we examine human evolution through pre-history and history, two fundamental realizations emerge. The first is man’s realization of the inevitability of death and the second is man’s need to have a social order.

Funeral rites are associated with the first realization. Man refused to accept that death was the end of life. Perhaps new sprouts from rotting vegetation gave them the idea that death was a giver of life. So human mind imagined and believed in a life after death. Many funeral rites like burials with supplies of food, clothing, cash, toys along with children etc. can be attributed to this sort of thinking. This belief went to the extent of burying weapons, army priests and even queens in the Egyptian pyramids.

But problems arise with the rituals practiced in these rites. People of all faiths performs funeral rites, but the rituals differ, some bury the dead, some cremate, some leave the body for birds to eat, etc. But before the disposal of the body, all pray for the departed soul, beg for divine mercy and forgiveness, atonement of sins etc. People forget these common factors of unity, and notice only the difference in the last part, which is insignificant, and feel that rituals are different, hence people are different. How stupid of us to ignore the similarity in the rites and presume that all are not the same. 

Wedding rites, and rites of puberty for girls and (in some African tribes) boys have a deeper meaning than mere festivities. These rites are meant for the orientation of the individuals in the society. Puberty rites are an indication to the young adult that hereafter he/she is responsible for his/her own actions, and an assurance to the society that as an adult, he/she is an integral part of its being. Wedding rites are the expressions of acceptance of the society, the binding of two individuals to form a ‘family’, the fundamental unit of society.

There is a third type of ritual, which is purely religious. Why do we enact Sita Rama Kalyanam, Nativity Play, and the Muharram procession etc?. It is a reliving of the entire episode to establish and reassure the hope of higher values and righteousness and the message of love and harmony to humanity.
“Myths are the mental supports of rites and rituals, and rites are the physical enactment of myths”
- Joseph Campbell in “The Myths We Live by”

Rites and rituals make the outermost fringes of religious practices which are observed collectively by the society and individually by the common man. Though many of the rites and rituals in the human society are of sociological origins, they are given a religious tone, and considered external expressions of religious practices. Let us examine, three rites observed by humanity all over the world. They are the rites of funerals, weddings, puberty or birth.

If we examine human evolution through pre-history and history, two fundamental realizations emerge. The first is man’s realization of the inevitability of death and the second is man’s need to have a social order.

Funeral rites are associated with the first realization. Man refused to accept that death was the end of life. Perhaps new sprouts from rotting vegetation gave them the idea that death was a giver of life. So human mind imagined and believed in a life after death. Many funeral rites like burials with supplies of food, clothing, cash, toys along with children etc. can be attributed to this sort of thinking. This belief went to the extent of burying weapons, army priests and even queens in the Egyptian pyramids.

But problems arise with the rituals practiced in these rites. People of all faiths performs funeral rites, but the rituals differ, some bury the dead, some cremate, some leave the body for birds to eat, etc. But before the disposal of the body, all pray for the departed soul, beg for divine mercy and forgiveness, atonement of sins etc. People forget these common factors of unity, and notice only the difference in the last part, which is insignificant, and feel that rituals are different, hence people are different. How stupid of us to ignore the similarity in the rites and presume that all are not the same. 

Wedding rites, and rites of puberty for girls and (in some African tribes) boys have a deeper meaning than mere festivities. These rites are meant for the orientation of the individuals in the society. Puberty rites are an indication to the young adult that hereafter he/she is responsible for his/her own actions, and an assurance to the society that as an adult, he/she is an integral part of its being. Wedding rites are the expressions of acceptance of the society, the binding of two individuals to form a ‘family’, the fundamental unit of society.

There is a third type of ritual, which is purely religious. Why do we enact Sita Rama Kalyanam, Nativity Play, and the Muharram procession etc?. It is a reliving of the entire episode to establish and reassure the hope of higher values and righteousness and the message of love and harmony to humanity.

Religious quarrels and conversions.
The reasons for religious quarrels are human nature, Incomplete knowledge and lack of comprehensive spirit to understand religions properly. This inability boils down to intolerance of another man’s faith or opinion. No religion teaches to kill or plunder or indulge in immoral activities. 

The theology and philosophy of religions remain almost the same with varying degrees of stress on different aspects. These are grasped mostly by intellectuals, who may differ in their interpretations and indulge in dialectics. But they do not take it to the streets or battlefields. The problem starts with non-intellectuals, with imperfect knowledge religions. 

Narayana Guru contends that it is the duty of the religious preceptors to explain the meanings of cryptic statements and fictitious stories to the common man to suit their intellectual levels. This will demystify religion. In his discussions with the rationalist C.V. Kunju Raman, the Guru gives several examples to illustrate this. It is commonly said that the Vedas are the words of God. The phrase used for this is apourusheyam, which means “beyond man.” The Guru explains how this is to be interpreted . It only means that we do not know who composed all the hymns of the Vedas, or the passages contained in them are beyond common human understanding and need explanations by the preceptors, acceptable to the modern rational mind. When the Old Testament says that the Ten Commandments are directly from God, or that God spoke directly to Prophet Mohammad, we have to understand that these words are the pearls of wisdom discovered by these wise thinkers to enforce an ethical code for the welfare of humanity. They have to be understood and followed in the proper spirit. It is extremely indecent to argue about these or make fun of them. We have to remember that some people will follow them only if the words are directly from God.

Swami Vivekananda gives some more examples of demystifying religions. The Bible Says “ Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. “ If this is taken in the literal sense it becomes absurd. Can we see God? Of course not , because our knowledge has limitations. But the statement “I and my father are one” makes one realise as reality in his heart an identification of the soul of man with God. These ideas are expressed in some religions, only hinted in some others.

Some times there are apparently contradictory statements. Jesus says “ The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” Again he says “ Our father who art in Heaven”. These two statements appear contradictory to the uneducated, but conciliatory to the wise. The former who imagines a heaven in the skies, a God occupying a throne there, cannot accept the first statement. When a man has developed a high sense of spirituality, he can understand that the kingdom of heaven is within himself and God who is in heaven is within him, whereas the unenlightened fail to understand this. 

Such apparent perplexities and contradictions are there in every religion. They mark different stages in the growth of the religions. There are stages in the growth when forms and symbols are necessary. These have become rituals. They are the languages, which souls in that stage will understand. But one has to understand that rituals alone are not religion. They are highly degenerate gestures from which the original meaning is lost or forgotten. Even the priests may not know the full meaning. To ridicule and start arguing in the name of absurdities in mythology and rituals is the first step of religious quarrels. Human nature will lead it to a riot, violence, or even a war.

Narayana Guru In Atmopadesa Sathakam explains through an anology (stanza 44 - 48) of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, how incomplete knowledge and lack of comprehensive spirit have become the reason for religious quarrels. It is sheer folly and ignorance to believe that one religion can win over another by arguments or war. Depending on the socio- cultural and political conditions of the period and place, different religions stressed different aspects of values, which are not inimical but only complementary. He quotes the example of Christianity which is based on Universal love and Islam for which the basis is brotherhood. Aren’t these two, love and brotherhood one and the same?. Is there any meaning in arguing that Brotherhood is nobler than love, or love is greater than brotherhood?. Such arguments lead to nowhere . 

We have to understand that doctrines and dogmas alone are not religion. Mythology and rituals alone are not religion. Religion is a combination of all these in varying proportions to suit the different intellectual levels. What Narayana Guru did was to interpret religion in different levels , so that he could lead people to spirituality beyond the narrow confines of religions. It is relevant to quote Narayana Guru’s words in this context, which will remain a password for religious unity of all types, in all places. Religious texts are common human heritage. “ The human mind went on trying to find answers to the mysteries of life and death, and the universe, Answers to these spiritual problems evolved by great thinkers are found in the philosophy of all religions. This great inheritance belongs to the whole of humanity and no one has any exclusive rights on it. Exclusiveness would be against the spirit of the ancestors who acquired them for posterity. Just like the principles of science are considered the common inheritance of humanity and shared by all, similarly books on spiritual matters also should be utilized by all for the common good. Each individual can select his own author”.- (From the welcome speech at The All Religions’ Meet, held at Aluva in 1924).

Religious conversions.
The burning question we now face is religious conversions. Genuine disbelief was the main reason for religious conversion in the past . We can add three more reasons to this at present : the need to shed caste identify, the expectation of material benefits and coersion.

There was a time in the social history of Kerala when the entire Ezhava community (untouchables) proposed a mass conversion. The reason for this was evidently the need to shed caste identity. The rigours of caste system became offensive to human dignity and the educated leaders of the community held a discussion with Sree Narayana Guru who was the sole religious preceptor of them.

The discussions with Sahodaran Ayyappan and C.V Kunju Raman, (both are rationalists, but favorite disciples of the Guru) are interesting social documents. ( Published in the newspaper Kerala Koumudi Dec, 1923) The Guru analyzed very clearly the meaning of conversion. If the conversion is desired because of genuine disbelief in the principles, the inner core of the religion, it is hypocrisy to continue in the same religion. The conversion will benefit both the individual and the religion which he is leaving. One religion will get rid of a non- believer and the other will add a believer. But if the conversion is because of the outer crust of the religion, namely customs and traditions, it is cowardice to run away. They should stick to the religion and change the unhealthy and unsocial customs. 

After explaining all these, he effected a masterstroke. He organized an All Religions’ Meet, the first one in Asia, in Feb 1924 in his Advaithashram at Aluva. Representatives of all major religions attended and explained the principles of their religions. The outcome was that it became evident that all religions uphold the same universal values. The difference is only in the external details like customs and traditions and certain rituals .

Through this he proved to his followers the meaninglessness of religious conversions. They gave up the idea of conversion, and started to work for breaking such traditions and customs, which stand in the path of human liberty, dignity and progress. The practical result is the famous Vaikkom Satyagraha, in support of rights for untouchables to use public roads, the first organized struggle by the Indian National Congress against untouchability and caste discrimination. It was manned by the followers of the Guru and led by Periyar Ramaswmy.

In the modern social set up two more factors have entered the scene, voluntary religious conversions for material benefits and conversion by coersion by anti-social elements. Those who are tempted by material benefits to change their faith are no doubt first-rate hypocrites. Do they believe in any religion?. Those who are coersed to convert at gunpoint , or through psychological blackmail are unfortunate victims of socio-political upheavals. Such forced conversions only add to the list of non-believers.

Conclusion 
Let us conclude this paper with the words of Swami Vivekanda.

Swami Vivekananda says:
“The end of all religions is the realization of God in the soul. That is the one universal religion. If there is one Universal Truth in all religions, I place it here, in realizing God. Ideas and methods may differ, but that is the central point. There may be a thousand different radii but they all converge to one centre and that is the realization of God, something beyond this world of senses, this world of eternal eating and drinking and talking nonsense, this world of false shadows and selfishness. If there is something that is beyond all books, beyond all creeds, beyond the vanities of this world, it is the realization of God within yourself. One may pray in all temples and churches or mosques, carry all the sacred books in his brain but if he has no perception of God, he is an atheist. Prophet Mohammad calls such a man a donkey carrying books. A man who knows nothing of these, but if he feels God within him, he is a saint….. When a man says that he is right, his religion is right and all other religions are wrong , we have to presume that something is wrong with the ma…..” Let us remember always Narayana Guru’s words “What ever be the religion, let man be virtuous.” 

                                                                                                                Smt. Sathya Bai Sivadas

Bibliography

1. An Introduction to Hinduism By Prof. GAVIN FLOOD
(Cambridge University Press) Lecturer in Religious Studies
University of Wales, Lampeter. 

2. The Religions of Man By Prof. HUSTON SMITH
(Published by Harper& Row) Professor of Philosophy 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

3. The Myths to Live by By Prof. Joseph Campbell
(Published by Penguin, Newyork) The world’s foremost authority on Mythology was a lecturer at Sarah Lawrence College, where there is Joseph Campbell chair in comparative Mythology. Famous works are Masks of God, The Atlas of Mythology, The hero with a Thousand Faces. 

4. Speeches of Swami Vivekananda Published by Advaithasharama
In America Vol. III, V, VIII of ( Ramakrishna Mutt)
Complete works 

5. Sree Narayana Guru 
The Social Philosopher of Kerala 
Published by by Smt. Sathya Bai Sivadas 
(Bharatiya Vidyabhavan) P. Prabhakara Rao