By A Rishi
Excerpted from Swami Vivekananda’s legendary address to the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893
Three religions now stand in the world which have come down to us from time prehistoric—Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. They have all received tremendous shocks and all of them prove by their survival their internal strength. But while Judaism failed to absorb Christianity and was driven out of its place of birth by its all-conquering daughter, sect after sect arose in India and seemed to shake the religion of the Vedas to its very foundations, but like the waters of the seashore in a tremendous earthquake it receded only for a while, only to return in an all-absorbing flood, a thousand times more vigorous; and when the tumult of the rush was over, these sects were all sucked in, absorbed and assimilated into the immense body of the mother faith.
From the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy, of which the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes, to the low ideas of idolatry with its multifarious mythology, the agnosticism of the Buddhists and the atheism of the Jains, each and all have a place in the Hindu religion.
Where is the common center to which all these widely diverging radii converge? Where is the common basis upon which all these contradictions rest? And this is the question I shall attempt to answer.
The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. They hold that the Vedas are without beginning and without end. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery, and would exist if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual world. The moral, ethical, and spiritual relations between soul and soul and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits, were there before their discovery, and would remain even if we forgot them.
The Vedas teach us that creation is without beginning or end. Science is said to have proved that the sum total of cosmic energy is always the same. Then, if there was a time when nothing existed, where was all this manifested energy? Some say it was in a potential form in god. In that case god is sometimes potential and sometimes kinetic, which would make him mutable. Everything mutable is a compound, and everything compound must undergo that change which is called destruction. So god would die, which is absurd. Therefore there never was a time when there was no creation.
If I may be allowed to use a simile, creation and creator are two lines, without beginning and without end, running parallel to each other. God is the ever-active providence, by whose power systems after systems are being evolved out of chaos, made to run for a time and again destroyed. This is what the Brahmin boy repeats every day: ‘The sun and the moon, the Lord created like the suns and moons of previous cycles.’
Here I stand and if I shut my eyes, and try to conceive my existence, ‘I,’ ‘I,’ ‘I,’ what is the idea before me? The idea of a body. Am I, then, nothing but a combination of material substances? The Vedas declare ‘No.’ I am a spirit living in a body. The body will die, but I shall not die. The soul was not created, for creation means a combination, which means a certain future dissolution. If then the soul was created, it must die. Some are born happy, while others are born miserable. Why, if they are all created, why does a just and merciful god create one happy and another unhappy, why is he so partial? Nor would it mend matters in the least to hold that those who are miserable in this life will be happy in a future one. Why should a man be miserable even here in the reign of a just and merciful god?
In the second place, the idea of a creator god does not explain the anomaly, but simply expresses the cruel fiat of an all-powerful being. There must have been causes, then, before his birth, to make a man miserable or happy and those were his past actions.
We cannot deny that bodies acquire certain tendencies from heredity, but those tendencies only mean the physical configuration through which a peculiar mind alone can act in a peculiar way. There are other tendencies peculiar to a soul caused by his past actions. And a soul with a certain tendency would by the laws of affinity take birth in a body, which is the fittest instrument for the display of that tendency. This is in accord with science, for science wants to explain everything by habit, and habit has got through repetitions. So repetitions are necessary to explain the natural habits of a newborn soul. And since they were not obtained in this present life, they must have come down from past lives.
There is another suggestion. Taking all these for granted, how is it that I do not remember anything of my past life? This can be easily explained. I am now speaking English. It is not my mother tongue, in fact no words of my mother tongue are now present in my consciousness, but let me try to bring them up, and they rush in. That shows that consciousness is only the surface of the mental ocean, and within its depths are stored up all our experiences. Try and struggle, they would come up and you would be conscious even of your past life.
So then the Hindu believes that he is spirit. Him the sword cannot pierce—him the fire cannot burn—him the water cannot melt—him the air cannot dry. The Hindu believes that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose center is located in the body, and that death means the change of this center from body to body. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter. In its very essence, it is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow or the other it finds itself tied down to matter, and thinks of itself as matter.
How can the perfect soul be deluded into the belief that it is imperfect? We have been told that the Hindus shirk the question and say that no such question can be there. Some thinkers want to answer it by positing one or more quasi-perfect beings, and use big scientific names to fill up the gap. But naming is not explaining. The question remains the same. How can the perfect become the quasi-perfect; how can the pure, the absolute, change even a microscopic particle of its nature? But the Hindu is sincere. He does not want to take shelter under sophistry. His answer is: ‘I do not know. I do not know how the perfect being, the soul, came to think of itself as imperfect, as joined to and conditioned by matter.’
Well, then, the human soul is eternal and immortal, perfect and infinite, and death means only a change of center from one body to another. The present is determined by our past actions, and the future by the present. The soul will go on evolving up or reverting back from birth to birth and death to death. But here is another question: Is man a tiny boat in a tempest, raised one moment on the foamy crest of a billow and dashed down into a yawning chasm the next, rolling to and fro at the mercy of good and bad actions? Is there no hope? Is there no escape?—was the cry that went up from the bottom of the heart of despair. It reached the throne of mercy, and words of hope and consolation came down and inspired a Vedic sage, and he stood up before the world and in trumpet voice proclaimed the glad tidings: ‘Hear, ye children of immortal bliss! Even ye that reside in higher spheres! I have found the Ancient One, who is beyond all darkness, all delusion: knowing Him alone you shall be saved from death over again.’
‘Children of immortal bliss’—what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name—heirs of immortal bliss—yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the children of god, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth-sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.’
Thus it is that the Vedas proclaim not a dreadful combination of unforgiving laws, not an endless prison of cause and effect, but that at the head of all these laws, in and through every particle of matter and force, stands One, ‘By whose command the wind blows, the fire burns, the clouds rain, and death stalks upon the earth.’
And what is his nature? He is everywhere, the pure and formless One, the Almighty and the All merciful. ‘Thou art our father, Thou art our mother, Thou art our beloved friend, Thou art the source of all strength; give us strength. Thou art he that beareth the burdens of the universe; help me bear the little burden of this life.’ Thus sang the Rishis of the Veda. And how to worship Him? Through love. ‘He is to be worshiped as the one beloved, dearer than everything in this and the next life.’
This is the doctrine of love declared in the Vedas, and let us see how it is fully developed and taught by Krishna, whom the Hindus believe to have been god incarnate on earth.
He taught that a man ought to live in this world like a lotus leaf, which grows in water but is never moistened by water; so a man ought to live in the world—his heart to god and his hands to work.
It is good to love god for hope of reward in this or the next world, but it is better to love god for love’s sake, and the prayer goes: ‘Lord, I do not want wealth, nor children, nor learning. If it be Thy will, I shall go from birth to birth, but grant me this, that I may love Thee without the hope of reward-love unselfishly for love’s sake.’ One of the disciples of Krishna, the then Emperor of India, was driven from his kingdom by his enemies and had to take shelter with his queen, in a forest in the Himalayas, and there one day the queen asked him how it was that he, the most virtuous of men, should suffer so much misery. Yudhishthira answered: ‘Behold, my queen, the Himalayas, how grand and beautiful they are: I love them. They do not give me anything, but my nature is to love the grand, the beautiful, therefore I love them. Similarly, I love the Lord. He is the source of all beauty, of all sublimity. He is the only object to be loved; my nature is to love Him, and therefore I love. I do not pray for anything. Let him place me wherever he likes. I must love him for love’s sake. I cannot trade in love.’
The Vedas teach that the soul is divine, only held in the bondage of matter; perfection will be reached when this bond will burst, and the word they use for it is therefore mukti-freedom, freedom from the bonds of imperfection, freedom from death and misery.
And this bondage can only fall off through the mercy of god, and this mercy comes on the pure. So purity is the condition of his mercy. How does that mercy act? He reveals him self to the pure heart; the pure and the stainless see god, yea even in this life. Then and then only all crookedness of the heart is made straight; then all doubt ceases. He is no more the freak of a terrible law of causation. The Hindu does not want to live upon words and theories. If there are existence beyond the ordinary sensuous existence, he wants to come face to face with them. If there is an all-merciful universal Soul, he will go to him direct. He must see him, and that alone can destroy all doubts. So the best proof a Hindu sage gives about the soul, about god, is—’I have seen the soul; I have seen god.’
Thus the whole object of their system is by constant struggle to become perfect, to become divine, to reach god and see god, and this reaching god, seeing god, becoming perfect even as the father in heaven is perfect, constitutes the religion of the Hindus.
And what becomes of a man when he attains perfection? He enjoys infinite and perfect bliss, having obtained the only thing in which man ought to have pleasure, namely god, and enjoys the bliss with god.
If it is happiness to enjoy the consciousness of this small body, it must be greater happiness to enjoy the consciousness of two bodies, the measure of happiness increasing with the consciousness of an increasing number of bodies, the aim, the ultimate of happiness being reached when it would become a universal consciousness.
Therefore, to gain this infinite universal individuality, this miserable little prison-individuality must go. Then alone can death cease when I am one with life, then alone can misery cease when I am one with happiness itself, then alone can all errors cease when I am one with knowledge itself; and this is the necessary scientific conclusion. Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter, and advaita (unity) is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, soul.
This brethren, is a short sketch of the religious ideas of the Hindus. The Hindu may have failed to carry out all his plans, but if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite, like the god it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.
Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you. Ashoka’s council was a council of the Buddhist faith. Akbar’s, though more to the purpose, was only a parlor meeting. It was reserved for America to proclaim to all the quarters of the globe that the Lord is in every religion.
May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura-Mazda of the Zoroastrians, the Buddha of the Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heaven of the Christians, give strength to you to carry out your noble idea! The star arose in the East; it traveled steadily towards the West, sometimes dimmed and sometimes effulgent, till it made a circuit of the world, and now it is again rising on the very horizon of the East, the borders of the Sanpo, a thousandfold more effulgent than it ever was before.
Hail, Columbia, motherland of liberty! It has been given to thee, who never dipped her hand in her neighbor’s blood, who never found out that the shortest way of becoming rich was by robbing one’s neighbors, it has been given to thee to march at the vanguard of civilization with the flag of harmony.
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