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What is Religion? || Acharya Prashant on, Ramana Maharishi (2015)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
31 min
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Speaker: So, this morning we are here, trying to look at what is Religion . It would be easy to go into this deeply researched and heavily documented topic as just another objective topic, but I wonder, whether we ask ourselves some very subjective, very personal, very intimate questions. I wonder, whether we ask ourselves, “Why we wake up every morning?” I wonder, whether we have really asked ourselves, “What brings us, here, to this hall, at this hour?” I wonder, whether we ask ourselves, “What our eyes are looking for, all the time?” Very few of us would have asked themselves – “Why they feel thirsty all the time. And why there is a need to eat? And why does one feel like living on? And why do successes never feel complete?”

So as I said, we could either take Religion as an academic or philosophical topic, and create a distance between the topic and ourselves. Or we could go into it in a more intimate way. When you look at the people around you, or at the fellow in the mirror, what you see is a search.

Today is a Sunday morning and if you stand at a crossing and look at the faces of the people going past you, coming towards you, you see a certain seeking. Of course, there is no point asserting that the seeking is of what we classically call as ‘a spiritual nature’, yet everybody is definitely searching . I like to say that man is a restlessness . And he is restless for something that he has no idea about – that aggravates his restlessness. He can feel a deep longing in his soul, but he has no means to really ascertain what he longs for. So it’s a very punishing predicament.

You surely want something and you can’t live without what you want, and yet the power to really know what you want has not been given to you.

It is not something that the eyes can see. Could the eyes see it, man would have grabbed it long back. Man’s sight has penetrated deep into the atom and far into the universe; could the eyes see it, man would have obtained it by now. Could the ears hear it, man would have gone and fetched it and kept it safe in his pocket. Today we are listening to waves and radiations that come from galaxies and celestial entities, so far off that they are almost beyond imagination.

Look at how our restlessness plays out – all the institutions that we have built, this entire edifice of civilization and culture that we have raised, the literature, the technological progress, arts and culture, the various sciences; in fact everything that we call as human development, human activity, it is strange, everything that we attribute to man as a proof of his greatness is actually coming from his restlessness.

You look at the great monuments that the kings have built, you look at the great technological innovations that are today happening, you look at the thick volumes of books that writers and poets have produced, and why are they doing what they are doing? Why? And if they could get, what they wanted to get, out of their doing, why does the doing never cease?

The word ‘Religion’ is very interesting in it etymological roots – it means ‘*to go through again*’. This ‘*going through*’ has been variously interpreted as either ‘*coming back*’, or ‘*reading again*’ but the emphasis is on ‘*again*’, ‘*re*’, the ‘*re*’ part of the Religion, as if those who coined the word knew that there is something that has been lost and must be ‘*gained again*’ – ‘re’-gained.

Another interpretation of the meaning of this word is ‘ to bind fast’ , ‘ to hold-fast’ , ‘*to connect*’, and it has been expanded to mean that it is that which connects man to Gods, but that is an unnecessary inflation of meaning. So, since time immemorial, man has kept feeling that he has lost something which he needs to regain .

Religion is that quest to regain, to come back to something very essential; to get back some part, some very essential, fundamental part of you, without which you can’t breathe, without which you can’t live. And howsoever hard you try, you cannot bring yourself to forget that you have lost something very important, that is the importance of Religion.

The loss is like a festering wound, it keeps reminding man of itself every moment, which means that every moment what man is doing, is just somehow an attempt to get back that essential thing, that appears to be lost. Somebody is walking on the road, somebody is eating, somebody is going to sleep, somebody is going to marry, somebody is trying to get a job – in their own way, all of them, are seeking that same one thing, which is not really a thing. Had it been a thing, it would have been long back discovered, analysed, stored. Not only the man who is going to his job, not only the man who is going to his wedding, not only the man who is going to the library, but also the man who is going to commit a murder, also the man who knows that he is going to cheat, also the man who is wearing a suicide bomb, all of them, are seeking to fill some hole in their heart. Which means that every moment, each one of us, without exception, is engaged in what we can call as ‘Religious activity’. We may name it as such or not, we may acknowledge it or not. We may call it by any other name, we could call it ambition , we would call it striving, we could call it goals, targets, and success, and we could call it life’s mission.

But our eyes are all looking for the same One thing .

That brings us to the prevalent use of the word ‘Religion’. We say, that there are a few hundred existing and acknowledged Religions in the world. Man is not the same at any two instances, what he needs to do; who is the one that needs to act, is changing with the moment, so three hundred Religions are simply too few. There is a continuous change, there is a continuous need to know , freshly, what is it that one needs to do at any given instance. Instances are far more numerous than three hundred, or three thousand, or even three million.

Either one could say, “Religion is One.”

Religion is One in the sense that O ne is the centre to which we all want to return, and since the destination is One, so we can aptly say that Religion is One.

Either one could say that. That would be said keeping the destination in mind . One destination, so One Religion. Or one will have to say, that Religions must be infinite. That would have to be said keeping the wanderer in mind. The home is One, the wanderer is at multiple, infinite locations. He is the one who is lost, he is the one who needs to go back. Remember? ‘Re’ligion. Going back. So, from the end of the centre to which he is to return, Religion must be One. From the end at which the man, the mind is currently standing, the Religion must be infinitely diverse. Three hundred is a very intermediate number, neither here nor there. Three hundred is the number of Religions currently said to be in vogue.

There have to be as many Religions as there are minds , as there are instances, as there situations and moments. One needs to ask, “If man is all the time trying to return, to what he can call as peace , or fulfilment, to completeness, why does he not simply return? The observation would be quite interesting. It should be easy to return, actually, but what if a thousand, a million ways to return have been drilled into the mind. What if a simple stroll away from the Home becomes a story of getting lost forever, because having come out, you get confused with the various road signs that you see and the various advices that you get from the well-wishers, the religious teachers, the community counsellors, the teachers, the academicians, the philosophers. Yes, of course, there is the Home and the very purpose of Home is to give you the security, to occasionally wander out of the Home. If the Home never allows you to step outside of it, then it is not a Home, it is a jail. The centre to which man really belongs is not a possessive centre. It gives man ample freedom to roam about, to wander. The mind has all the right and all the freedom to project a world, to playfully toy with the world – Leela .

So the mind steps outside that great empty centre, just as a sport, but outside what awaits is a long tradition of evolution and experience and scholarship.

When so much of advice is available on how to get peace, how will one ever get peace? When so many people are intent upon telling you what to do with your life, how will you ever know what to do this moment? When you are repeatedly being told, and told, and told, about what Love means , what money means , what work is , what relationships are , what society is , what God is , how will you ever know any of these?

I had said, if you observe why man had been unable to return, you would come across something interesting. The various Religions are one of the major reason why man’s search remains elusive and when I say ‘Religions’, I do not mean only organised Religions. Whatsoever tells you about the fundamentals of life comes in the purview of Religion. So if parents are trying to tell the kid about the importance of grades, about the importance of getting more marks – this is religious education . If peers are trying to tell a child, how absolutely critical it is to clear a competitive examination – this is religious indoctrination. If a particular employer is motivating his employees to forget everything else and focus on sales targets, and he is saying, “Forget everything else, this is what you need to do.” – This is very much religious activity. This is religious activity because it is attempting to tell the listener that by undertaking this activity you will get That which you really want.

The man who is telling a woman that she should come with him and he will give her the highest happiness possible, is making a religious promise. He will never say, and romance hardly ever looks like Religion, but the promise is essentially religious. He is promising God to her, he is saying, “Come to me, I will give you fulfilment.” It is another matter that he will never be able to keep his promise. All such promises get broken, all such affairs fail.

The shopping mall that is telling you that you can get enjoyment by visiting it is again making a religious claim. All the institutions that the society has set up, that promise deliverance, completeness, satisfaction, a feeling of accomplishment, are all trying to do something religious. When there is so much of purported religious activity being attempted, it is obvious that getting lost would be the easiest thing to do. You might have taken just a few steps out of your Home, but with so many people pulling and pushing you in so many different directions, it would be impossible for you to take the simple and direct route back Home. You would be pushed away, away and further away from your centre, from your Home. And the further you go, the more you meet these ‘well–wishers’, who have written commentaries, who say that they have experience, who say that they do not want you to suffer and they will keep showing you a thousand routes.

Man falls and man falls in the trap of these routes. If we look at our lives and the life of the man sipping tea in his balcony, or the man out to take a walk, is there anything that we are doing and is not a product of recommendation of others? Our education, our social relationships, our very consciousness is composed of the teachings and advices and examples and experiences of others.

The more this consciousness, this mind grows and gets filled up, the more difficult it is to return. Man is a restlessness and the restlessness keeps growing, growing. The more it grows, the more man seeks advice. Unfortunately, he seeks advice from those who themselves need advice.

So for sure, the probability that one can really know the True Religion, which is both One and infinite by looking around at the acts of others, and trying to emulate them, is nil. One has to be constantly alert. The Home beckons. The restlessness is a proof that you are being called. I’m very sure that the day you will not be called, you will not wake up in the morning. You wake up in the morning because another day, another possibility awaits you in which something can happen. You wake up to search, you wake up to find. Your eyes open in a longing . When you know so much, when you know that you are being called, then you surely have some connection with the One who is calling. Otherwise, how would you have felt the longing?

Instead of asking Jack and Jill, him and her, this and that, about how to go back, how to take the road back, why don’t you ask the One who is calling? He is calling, ask Him; directly and simply. That is the essence of Religion – Having no intermediary, a direct connection between you and your Home.

You remember we said, “Binding fast, connecting strongly,” this strong connection is called Attention in the language of gyana (self- knowledge) . In the language of bhakti, it is called prem or Love.

You will know how to go back, if you Love only One. If you Love many, then you will be distracted towards many. You will know how to go back if you are listening only to One, this is called Attention or Dhyan. But if you are listening to too many voices and noises, then obviously you will not know where to go.

Man’s life is a constant religious pursuit, even those who call themselves atheist are actually religious. They are religious in their own way. One can call them – religious atheists.

Look at your restlessness. If you can honestly understand it, then the restlessness itself will show the way.

If you will not be able to understand it, then you’ll be left wandering, knocking from door to door, and only receiving rejection, humiliation, and disappointment, which we do. You would keep trying one thing after the other, you would keep exploring one avenue after the other, never finding what you are seeking. Time will keep going past you and as your age will advance, you will be taken over by more and more bitterness. The disappointment of a life being lost, an entire birth going waste will become a constant reminder of the futility of living. Do not let that happen.

We have talked about a few things, we explored what Religion is, we saw that man is essentially restive, a disquiet is man, and we tried to understand why it is so difficult to return to the Source when it should have been fairly simple.

We will proceed further by discussing with you, via your comments and questions.

Listener 1: Sir, what is S wadharm ?

Speaker: Dharm is S wadharm , it is either S wadharm or not Dharm at all. We all remember how Krishna says that, “It is better to die in S wadharm , then to follow another’s D harm. – (In Sanskrit) स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः (Swadharme nidhanam shreyah)”

You are located at a particular position; at a particular point in time , and your position is changing every moment. Remember what Kabir had said?

( In Hindi ) “मन के बहुतक रंग हैं, छिन-छिन बदले सोय|” (man ke bahutak rang hain, chin-chin badle soye)

(Translation: Mind has different colours. The colour keeps changing moment to moment.)

Changing every moment.

Swadharm is to know what your location is, and your locations are different. Swadharm is to know what your location is, and hence what is the direct route from your location to the destination. And only you can know that. You see, if you want to come to me and you are sitting there (towards the left), you’ll have to take one route to come to me. And then, if you are sitting there (towards the right), you’ll have to take another route to come to me. Even if the destination is the same, the route taken will depend on your location. That is S wadharm . Swadharm does not mean that you have a particular brand of Religion. Swadharm does not mean that you have a particular concept of Religion. In fact, to the contrary, Swadharm means – you have no definite Religion, you have complete flexibility, you have complete dynamic freedom. And only in this freedom is it possible to return to the centre.

Sitting there (on the speaker’s left), if you try to take a route which is applicable to the one sitting here (on the speaker’s right), then you will not reach me. You will reach somewhere else and we all keep reaching somewhere else, don’t we? See where we want to reach and see where we end up reaching.

You marry and you think that you’ll get Bliss. See what you end up getting. You hop from one job to another, hoping that the new one would be better than the previous one. At best what you get is a compromise. People even change Religions. They say, “I have changed my Faith ”, which is a very strange statement. People change everything, the colours of the walls of the house, their hairstyles, their cars, their nationalities, their ideologies, their pets, their perfumes. We try so hard, don’t we? But we never end up reaching where we want to reach. It is because we have rigid ideas about Religion.

Religion means absolute Freedom. Absolute Freedom to reach the Absolute . That is probably a nice definition of Religion.

Absolute Freedom to reach the Absolute, is Religion.

Listener 1 : Sir, when you said that, once you observe my location, where I am, I will be able to reach where you are. So we exactly know where we are and who is calling from where, or does that require just more than knowing? Because I have to know your destination as well to move from here to there, so is it possible to know that exactly? Or does it require something more?

Speaker: No, it does not require anything more than paying attention to your own situation. The One who is calling you, calls you via you. Pay attention to this.

The One who is calling you, calls you through you. Your own situation, your own condition contains all the signals and hints. When you will look at yourself, honestly and sharply, you will realise what you have been, and what you are doing to yourself; you just have to stop doing all that. The Home is really never too far away.

Even the power to have that honest , sharp look of detachment at oneself comes from the One who is calling.

So, Pray .

When he calls, tell him, “Since you have been calling, and since I have been desperate to meet you, why don’t you bless me with a little more honesty? Why don’t you make me a little more sensitive towards myself? I am so insensitive towards myself that I do not look at my own wounds. I’m indifferent to my own suffering . If I could be a little more sensitive to my own predicament, then I would have known that all the methods that I have been trying are not working. That I am unnecessarily carrying beliefs; that my confidence upon my ways is misplaced.”

And it is absolutely necessary to lose this confidence. We all are carrying this false sense of sureness. We are sure about something that is not working at all! We are confident about beliefs that are only landing us in more and more trouble.

Sensitivity means to not to be so blinded by beliefs, that you cannot look at the obvious.

So look at the obvious. And if you are trying hard and yet failing, then Pray.

Listener 2: I like your statement that waking up in the morning is a call from the Absolute. But is it true that when He wants us to detach from this world to attach to Him, he creates more suffering or situations or scenarios so that we do start to attach more to Him and detach from the world? For example, relatives and friends give you a hard time, so you feel that this world is worthless. Does that happen?

Speaker: But does He really need to give you, or give me, or anybody more suffering? Are we not already suffering enough? We may not be sensitive to our suffering, we may not really know what is going on. The only one who is not suffering is the yogi , or the jeevanmukta , what has been fancifully called as the emancipated man, the liberated one. And we do not know him. We may have heard stories about him, but we do not really know him. Except for him, who is not suffering?

Yes, we call our sufferings by very decorated names – Hope , patience , possessiveness , desires of a thousand kind, attachments , future , memories , ideologies, divisions, limitations. We have given our sufferings very ornamented names, so at times we forget that this is just suffering. Suffering by another name. But why must we ask for more? He has already exhausted his quota. He can’t give us anymore, he always operates at the maximum. You know, that is why He is called the Absolute. Tremendous Joy he gives; and tremendous suffering as well, if you refuse the Joy.

What is suffering? An ignorant refusal of Joy.

There is nothing relative with Him.

Listener 3: Sir, mind sometimes clings to some object. The object maybe some situation or some arrangement in life and it thinks that it is now settled and in that environment it feels that the suffering has been subdued. But to maintain that arrangement, the mind always has to do something. So although he is maintaining the situation, but still he finds that even in that settled environment, the suffering has not totally disappeared, so what is the way to be completely at peace?

Speaker: See if you are really feeling that things are alright with you then continue in your assumed bliss. Why should you trouble yourself? Good for you, if for a while even a semblance of Joy is available to you. Don’t bother it, the bubble would anyway burst sooner than later.

But I really wonder, if it is possible to be so negligent that one had no idea of the fakeness of the bubble. If you can totally forget your suffering, nothing like it. In fact you should not entertain then people like me, who keep reminding that life is suffering. You should then boldly assert that life is not suffering at all! “Life is Joy and I’m experiencing that Joy.” If you could honestly assert that, well only if.

It doesn’t happen with anybody. Even when you are loudly declaring to the entire world – How happy you are, there is that little, irritating, reminding voice, telling you, “Sir, something is wrong!” Even when you are trying to announce to yourself that now everything is alright, and there is complete security, yet you know how the smallest disturbing news rankles you and reminds you of your fragility.

You might be telling yourself that you have finally met the Love of your life, yet you know how a suspicion keeps lurking within. You might keep declaring that you have let go of all possessiveness, of all attachments, yet one message from your bank can unnerve you. You might keep declaring that you have ‘arrived’ in a spiritual way, but one bad report from the pathology, one bad news from the doctor, can totally shake you up. You are reciting, “I am not the body, I am not the body” and the doctor tells you, “You have two more months”, and you suddenly find that you are totally the body.

I do not know whether we are honestly ever so negligent that we can console ourselves that we are not suffering. Life is reminding you every moment that you are Homeless. How can a thirsty man whose throat is so very parched, forget, even for a moment, that he is thirsty? We all know that. Our ceaseless endeavours are a proof of the fact that we know that we are thirsty. Look at the vehicles speeding past on the road. What do you think, that these people are going to their offices, or to their homes, or to the markets? No, each of these vehicles is trying to reach God. They may not say that. And there is no road sign that says, “God – take off.” If you stop any of them and tell them, “I know where you want to reach. No right, no left, take a U-turn into your own heart.” They will say, “You are a mad man.” But you have given them just the right advice. You have really told them where they want to reach and how to reach.

Listener 4: The only way to get beyond suffering is to find God?

Speaker: This is circular definition. When you are free of suffering – that is God. These are not two different things at all. What is God? Nothing but freedom from suffering.

Listener 4: How do we get there?

Speaker: How did we start suffering in the first place? Is that not a more important question? That is what we had been trying to look at, this morning. How did we bring ourselves to this condition in the first place? How did a small walk down the road become an infinite wandering? Anchorless wandering.

If we can understand how one gets lost, returning is so simple and instantaneous.

Listener 5: Sir, what is the relationship between violence and Religion? Because, just yesterday, we experienced a series of blasts in Paris and the Islamic state has claimed responsibility. So, this is one kind of violence that has a sure shot reference to Religion. I mean what they mean by ‘Religion’, certainly not what we have tried to understand by the term Religion. And there was one Religion that the Sikhs fought for, and violence was there in that also, and violence is contained in this definition also. So what is the relationship between Religion and violence? And how are these two cases really different from one another?

Speaker: You see, we all want That more than anything or anybody else. Pay attention please. We want That more than anybody or anything else, that is why it is obvious that anything or anybody can be sacrificed. When something is of the highest importance to you, by definition it means that other things and other people can be put aside.

All sacrifice, in some sense, is a value judgement. You know what is to be kept first. And when you know what is to be kept first, then the second, third, fourth, fifth – all become dispensable. Are you getting it? The suicide bomber too, in his own value judgement, is keeping something first and hence is deciding that all else has very little value; it can be destroyed, blasted away, killed.

So it is not so much a question of violence. It is a question of whether you really know what is to be given the first priority.

And if you really know what is to be given the first priority, then sacrificing all else for its sake is very much alright. It is not even a question of one fifty lives, what I am going to say now might sound a little shocking, but even hundred fifty million lives do not matter, provided one really really *know*s. I’m not of one’s personal subjective judgement. I’m not talking of the opinions and beliefs and ideologies of the ego. I’m talking of R eal knowing.

In that Real knowing, value is attached only to the Truth, only to the Absolute, and nothing else matters.

But I repeat, the question is, “Is the one entering this act of killing really in touch with the Absolute?” That is what needs to be probed.

How does one probe that? To begin with – the Absolute is characterised by stillness. It does not fall in the purview of mind’s conscious thought. It is non–dual. One cannot have ‘an idea’ about what is right. One could not be following a book and saying that the book commands me to do this and that. Because a book can give you only words. So when you want to look at these happenings, you have to ask, “Are these people driven by the call of the Absolute, or are they driven by particular ideologies?” Driven by ideologies, and all ideologies are man-made, you may try to attribute them to God, but God never gives you any ideologies, God never gives you any principles. The Absolute is not at all interested in giving you commandments.

If the action is happening out of a direct relationship with the Absolute, every action is justified.

It may appear gruesome, it may appear horrible to you – it doesn’t matter. Your standards of morality do not apply to what happens in Truth. But if those entering these acts are driven by principles, driven by utopias, driven by thoughts and ideas, driven by codes of conduct, driven by moral standards, then you should know, that what is happening is just violence. And anything that happens out of ignorance is violence, not only a bomb-blast.

Anything that happens out of ignorance is violence.

Listener 5: Sir, so is there a way to ever distinguish between a terrorist and a Sikh guru, because outwardly they both would seem the same; they both are fighting, killing. To a third person they both would appear same.

Speaker: They both exist within you, when you can distinguish these two parts of you from one another then outside also you will be able to distinguish them from one another. Within yourself both of them exist and you are not able to tell them apart from each other, you are confused. Within you lies your Home, and your mind is also infested by Maya. You are unable to differentiate between these two. When you will be able to differentiate between these two within, then you will also be able to differentiate between the Real warrior and the ideology-driven terrorist, outside.

Listener 2: Sir, when you said that atheist actually have a Religion, what exactly did you mean by that?

Speaker: Even atheists are driven by their longings. One is an atheist and says, “This house that I am building, will give me satisfaction. This company that I am expanding, will give me contentment. This woman that I am approaching, will give me Love.” If one is an atheist, he still wants joy, he still want Love. Wanting Joy, wanting Love, wanting freedom, wanting Truth – all of these are religious pursuits. When one says that he is atheist, one says, “I do not believe in the concept of God”, which is very much alright. Even the spiritual man really does not believe in the concept of God. But does being an atheist mean that you have rejected Love along with God? You say, “You do not believe in God”, but do you also not believe in Love? And Love is not something material. You cannot hold it in your hands. Joy is not something material, you cannot put it in your pocket. So even the atheist really does believe in something that is beyond the senses and beyond the mind. Even his pursuits are in that sense very much religious.

Alright, I think that’s quite a religious beginning to this day. I pray that all of us are shown the way. Thank you.

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