Why ask this question? I’m sure you realize that there are many today for whom the word religion is distasteful. They have poor associations with it, or worse. Frankly, in my earliest acquaintance with Vedanta I saw it as an escape from religion!
Certainly it is not “a” religion: not one among many. I hope all of us know that. The attempt to “relativize” it, to place it as just another faith, is bound to fail. The question is, are the usual criteria, or hallmarks of religion applicable to our Vedanta? Or should we call it by some other name? [Swami Ashokananda calling it “Philosophy and Religion] Swami Vivekananda, you may recall, said: “Religion without philosophy runs to superstition; philosophy without religion becomes dry atheism.”
A good way to approach it , would be first to define our terms. What is religion? I myself am not sure; so don’t expect finality on it from me. [You will discuss it]. However, I may ultimately ask, “Is there anything which is not religion?” [Issue of spirituality]. The word is made up re , back, and ligio, to bind. That’s very popular in Christianity and preachers make much of it, but I don’t think it helps us very much; yet, S.V. said, “R. is the eternal relation between the eternal soul and the eternal God.” [Analyze-there can be only one Eternal]
Often we learn from what a thing is not. For instance, even if we include among the phenomena of r. beliefs, rites, organizations, prelates, scriptures, identification with race or tongue or social practices or politics, still I think of you would agree, these are not the essence of r. Even ethics is not the essence of it. [Why not?] Let me inject one important observation to which we may return. Indian thought would insist that r. is not the product of the limited consciousness of the waking state alone; dream and dreamless sleep and the witness of these must also be taken into account. This will ensure a “mystical” definition of r. Perhaps you would want to say that it is an attitude; e.g., take this observation of Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet: “Your daily life is your temple and your religion.” I can suggest also that r. is “finding the meanings of things” Is that too broad? If you follow it far enough of course you discover that all things have only one meaning! In other words it is integration, because that’s what meaning is.
With this, then, let me turn to some of the definitions of it given by S.V.
“Religion is being and becoming — the whole soul being transformed into what it believes.” It possesses us; then what about Communism? [S.V on phil. without r.]
“Yoga (comprehensive) is the process of r.”
“R. is being true to your own nature; the awakening of the spirit within us, consequent upon pure and heroic action.” [Discuss briefly]
“It is the realization of spirit as spirit (not matter)
“R. is the acceptance of all existing creeds, seeing in them the same striving toward the same destination. [Cf. –tva]
“It is the idea which is raising the brute to man and the man to God.” (Evolution)
Now let us make some attempt to define Vedanta.
First, it can have nothing in common with cynical definitions of r., e.g. Freud’s opiate of the people. or Averroes: “R. is a means to instruct and govern ignorant people,” and “Philosophy is the discipline of the elect, who are able to behave themselves and govern others.” Elitist!
Again, V. is not a theology because it has no dogma, should have no speculation. If it were identical with religion it would be manufacturing priests as well as swamis.
V. is the search for unity and freedom with results ultimately guaranteed. Its axiom is that there is only one entity, anything else is Its shadow. So you see, with this underlying point of view, unity has to be found everywhere: if man is in essence divine, then psychology = theology; history = cosmology; and since the universe itself is the evolution, as it were, of the Deity, cosmology = philosophy; physics and metaphysics are inseparable. The perfection of the human being with all his arts and sciences is not basically different from the perfection we attribute to Divinity.
Well, you may say, science too is a search for unity and freedom. Then do science and Vedanta differ in ways other than the field of investigation? Yes, even where they study the same field, they differ in their interpretations. Ramana Maharshi made this very clear when he told inquirers, “Seek the science of the Maker, not the science of the made. I hope you know Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She spends the entire time unveiling the “science of the made” — and all the time she’s telling us how temporal it is and how little it tells us about the Scientist behind it. Vedanta is nothing if not “finding the meaning”. Discovery of the transcendent in nature through the discovery of the transcendent in the human being. The essence of the Vedanta is inner transformation, or yoga. As Swamiji said, “Doctrines are methods, not religion.” And you remember what Sri RK said: “Milk you get only at the udder of the cow”. Vedanta, then, is the finding of the udder of the cow of Truth. And this, I think, is Vivekananda’s best summary of the commonality of r. and V.: “The eternal, infinite, omnipresent, omniscient is a principle, not a person. You and I and everyone are but embodiments of that principle, and the more of this infinite principle is embodied in a person, the greater is that person, and all, in the end, will be the perfect embodiment of that and then all will be one, as they are now essentially. This is all there is of r.”
In fact, I should say it may be quite proper that we be unable to define either Vedanta or r. The spirit of r. is something I never much cared for; but the spirit of V. is an attitude of perpetual surprise and playfulness — these are true characteristics of Vedanta, and I should hope to find them in r. as well. In fact, S.V. said, “R. is learning to play consciously.”
At this point I should like to open it up to you for discussion.
And I’ll have a little more to say at the close of the hour.
With regard to our own movement, S.V. neither introduced temples, shrines and rituals, nor did he ban them. Therefore I think we have to conclude that while Vedanta transcends religion as usually defined, it does not reject it, or better, to quote him. “Without Vedanta every religion becomes superstition; with Vedanta, everything becomes r.” “My mission in life,” he said, “is to show that r. is everything and in everything.” Today he might have said “spirituality”. “Drama and music are by themselves r. any song, love song or any song, never mind; if one’s whole soul is in that song, one attains salvation just by that. Philosophy and yoga and penance — the worship room — your offerings — all these constitute the r. of one person or one country; doing good to others is the one great universal religion.”