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(Summary transcribed from the tape recording) The Universal Religion | Posted : February 12, 2006
Maharaji started his discourse in a light mood commenting about the nice, warm weather of Manila, a welcome short relief from Japan's cold February. He also pointed out how Manila's weather and fruit trees reminded him of India and he expressed his happiness at visiting Manila once again.
Swami then reminded the participants about the topics of his discourses of the past four years and stated that today's discourse would probably sound quite new to them: a new approach to religion.
He invited the audience to listen carefully to the explanations about "Vedanta": especially now, when some devotees are trying to establish a Vedanta Society in the Philippines, it is important to understand the meaning of "Vedanta". Maharaji stated that, although the concept of "Vedanta" is probably unknown to most in the Philippines, this is not the case for many other countries, such as, for example, U.S.A. and Europe, where since a hundred years ago many people are familiar with it.
He then explained that the term "Vedanta" means "goal of the Vedas". Such term is in fact formed by two words: "Veda" which comes from India's ancient scriptures, and "Anta", which means "end", "goal".
What does "Veda" mean? It means "knowledge of God, or divine knowledge". The Veda scriptures are not just a record about one Incarnation of God, unlike the Bible, recording the teachings of Jesus Christ, or the Koran for the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed.
The Vedas have no specific author; they are the result of revelation and are eternal as the spiritual truths represented in them. Swami went on explaining that such truths are revealed in the heart of the sages at the beginning of a universe, and when a cycle is completed and such universe is dissolved the Vedas abandon their gross form and assume a subtle form.
Swami underlined to his audience that according to Hindu philosophy, the universe is not "created" or "destroyed" but only changes its condition from subtle to gross and then back to subtle or, in other words, it is "projected" at the beginning and later on "dissolved". The universe goes through repeated cycles being projected, sustained and dissolved. Vedas have three portions, continued Maharaj.
The first portion is about rituals and it is aimed at obtaining satisfaction of desires by performing different rites, offerings and sacrifices (every religion, including Christianity, has its rituals). The second part of the Vedas is about "Mantras", or holy words, aimed at worshipping Deities. The third part of the Vedas is about philosophy, knowledge and is called "Upanishad". Vedanta philosophy is based on the Upanishad. "Upanishad" means "near a teacher" and implies that knowledge cannot be achieved through books, but only by being in the company of a teacher, who imparts such spiritual truth to his disciples.
The age of the Vedas goes back at least five thousand years. During this long time some of the Upanishads were forgotten and lost. The remaining ones are very famous and form the basis for Vedanta philosophy. Swami then called the attention of his audience to the main difference between Western philosophy and Indian or Eastern philosophy. Both philosophies seek the truth, but Western thinkers try to reach the truth by using only intellect, intelligence, whereas in the East and in India truth is searched with one's whole being. Western philosophers are satisfied by understanding intellectually the truth. In India and the East truth has to be perceived, realized through one's whole being and life.
So the West establishes a difference between practice (equivalent to religion) and understanding (philosophy). In the Eastern seekers, in Vedanta, there is no such difference and philosophy and religion are the same, truth is pursued through both practice and understanding, truth should be realized.
In the West a philosopher may be very much advanced intellectually, while not necessarily leading a very moral life. That would not be possible in India and the East where one seeks truth through both intelligence and a pure life. Vedanta, the most famous of the six Indian philosophies, has strongly influenced Indian society and history for thousands of years and has allowed India to withstand many foreign invasions.
While elsewhere foreign invaders completely destroyed the local religions of the countries they invaded (think of the native religions of the inhabitants of America and Australia, for example) and replaced them with their own, the long invasions of Muslims and British in India did not succeed in destroying Indian culture and religion. Vedanta was the reason of India's resilience.
Maharaji then reminded his listeners that Vedanta may not be so well known in the Philippines, but has met with deep interest in many parts of the world, such as America, Europe and other Asian countries, where people of different religions are very fond of Vedanta and study it actively even as they maintain their original religion. Many Christians, Muslims and Buddhists are doing this. Many churches in the West invite Swamis to give speeches about Vedanta for their congregations; hopefully this will happen some day also in the Philippines, Swami auspicated.
What makes Vedanta so interesting and acceptable to intellectual, liberal Christians and Buddhists? The reason is that Vedanta has a very rationalistic approach, although at some point it transcends rationalism when the issue of realization is involved. Vedanta is also universal.
An Indian monk of the Vedanta Society of Hollywood, California, once said a story about this aspect: "If you gather Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and Krishna in a room, they will embrace each other, but if you assemble in that room four of their respective followers, they will argue and possibly fight." Swami underlined that fights may be there when importance is given to the non-essentials of religion rather than the essence of religion. Similarly when formalities and rituals are emphasized rather than the spirit of religion, fights may arise.
And what is the spirit of religion? Love for God, purity of heart, service to others.
All this is there in any religion. Vedanta gives emphasis on the spirit of religion, not on the external aspects. Vedanta does not believe that only one religion is true and produces saints whereas other religions are not true and may not generate saints. According to Vedanta every religion is a path to God realization, this is its universality.
Vedanta gives the following beautiful example. As different rivers come to the ocean from different sources and melt their waters there, so people of different tendencies, various as they may appear, follow different paths, crooked or straight, all leading to God. Vedanta respects and accepts the Prophets and Incarnations of all religions. Vedanta also accepts different methods of God realization, such as devotion, selfless work and meditation.
In today's world of fast communication and globalization Vedanta indicates how to harmonize the relationship among different cultures and religions and at the same time accepts that differences are there and should be there. Vedanta says: "In spite of all your differences you are all united in spirit" and "Unity in diversity". Finally, Vedanta is very liberal and, especially, spiritual; placing realization as its first aim and not limiting itself to social activities, like some other religions do. Vedanta poses some basic questions such as: "What is the true nature of God?" "What is the true nature of this universe?" "What is the true nature of ourselves, human beings?" "What is the connection among these three elements, God, universe and us?"
Upanishad, continued Swami, imparts a very important suggestion: "Know thyself". Vedanta has a very special approach to all those questions. First of all it teaches that one has to understand the difference between the apparent and the real, also one has to understand the difference between the relative and the absolute. Maharaji mentioned a few examples to make it easier to see the discrimination between the apparent and the real.
He directly addressed his audience asking: "We say the sky is blue, but is blue the real colour of the sky? No, blue is only the apparent colour of the sky." And he continued: "We look at the sun and it appears to us like a small disk, but is the sun really small? No, in reality it is extremely large." And then he mentioned Copernicus, who was the first to state that our planet is revolving around the sun. Until then the concept generally accepted as "real" was that the sun was revolving around our planet. Copernicus was initially challenged for declaring a truth that disregarded what appears and identified what is real. Swami gave then a few more examples of how we can easily be deceived by appearance and ignore reality and underlined that Vedanta invites us to question and discriminate our perceptions, asking ourselves whether what we perceive is real or only apparent.
Likewise Vedanta invites us to discriminate between relative and absolute. Again Maharaj gave some examples to make this point easier to understand. Among them he mentioned life and death: on the relative plane we are born and we die, but on the absolute plane only the body is born and dies, our self, our soul is neither born nor dies.
Maharaji then returned to the basic questions posed by Vedanta. The first one: what is the nature of God? According to Vedanta God is the Supreme Reality, Pure Consciousness, in Sanskrit: Brahman. According to the scriptures God is infinite: smaller than the smallest and greater than the greatest. Interestingly, this Vedanta's definition of infinity coincides with that given by science.
God is "Sat" "Chit" "Ananda", or absolute Knowledge, Existence and Bliss. This concept of absolute, applicable to God, is opposed to that of relative, applicable to humans. Human existence can last perhaps around a hundred years, but then it is bound to terminate. It is therefore a relative existence, conditioned by time and by space (a human body can only be in one place, but not somewhere else at the same time). Human knowledge is likewise limited (even Einstein, the great scientist, had a knowledge limited to science, his literary talent, for instance, was not comparable to that of Shakespeare).
Similarly human joy, or bliss, is relative and once again conditioned by time and other factors. Brahman is free from ignorance, bondage and delusion, as opposite to humans.
Brahman is also free from the three qualities that are always present in humans, in different combinations: sattva (the quality that reveals and induces balance and quiet), rajas (the quality that binds us through activity) and tamas (inducing indolence and inertia, a destructive quality). According to Vedanta our own consciousness is possible through the consciousness of Brahman, in the same way as His consciousness allows the universe and all natural phenomena (such as the sun, the light, the water, etc.) to exist and operate.
As the moon "borrows" its light from the sun, so the consciousness of the human beings is a reflection of Brahman's consciousness. The scriptures say: "It is not that God is in everything: God is everything." Maharaji asked: "But how can Brahman, pure consciousness, so subtle, create a universe so material?" And then he answered the question by citing a Vedanta example.
A banyan is a huge tree and a teacher instructed his student to break in two the small fruit of the huge banyan tree. The teacher then asked the student: "Do you see anything inside?" "Only seeds, Sir" Was the student's answer. At that the teacher instructed his student to take one seed, break it and tell what he saw. The student answered: "I see nothing, Sir." But then the teacher explained that inside the very small seed of the enormous banyan tree there was the subtle essence of the tree itself.
Then Swami posed a new question: "Why cannot we see Brahman in the universe?" And again he answered it and explained that "name" and "form" are the elements that give us the impression of difference between objects or between human beings. If we managed to remove name and form then we would be able to see the underlying same consciousness permeating everything and everyone: Brahman. He then illustrated this point by giving a few examples. Here is one about golden ornaments.
The difference among golden ornaments such as ear-rings, nose-rings, necklaces and bracelets is only the result of the shape and names of such ornaments. If a goldsmith melts them then the underlying essence of those ornaments will result: gold. So the method to find Brahman is analyzing and eliminating names and forms.
Going then to Vedanta's basic question of what is the true nature of ourselves, human beings, Maharaji invited the audience to use the same method of analysis, elimination, discrimination just described. If we do that we finally find out that we are not the body, we are not the vital energy, senses, mind, intelligence, ego; we are pure consciousness. Commenting in this respect the words of Jesus "The kingdom of God is within you" Swami explained that His words did not refer to the body, but to the spirit. In conclusion Vedanta believes in the oneness of existence: the Supreme Reality that exists in the universe also exists in our selves. So the answer to the questions about the true nature of God, the universe, us and what are the connections among them is that we are all united in spirit, pure consciousness. Why do we not understand it?
Vedanta believes that we all experience every day three stages: waking stage, dreaming stage and deep sleep. There is however a fourth stage called Turiya or knowledge, realization, eternal awakening. According to Vedanta the waking and dreaming stages are equivalent, because during waking stage we are deluded by the wrong perceptions of the apparent and the relative. By reaching the Turiya state, through spiritual practice, we then realize that our present waking state is a dream in reality, and we attain to wisdom, freedom, perfection or, in other words, we reach heaven in this life.
How then to achieve the state of Turiya? There are three steps. First we must listen to the spiritual truth, our true nature being pure consciousness, Secondly we have to reason about it, to apply our thinking, questioning and analysing so that we can become intellectually convinced about that. In the third step we have to practice it, through meditation (by pointing our mind towards the spiritual truth in the same way as an arrow is aimed at a target) and through negation/affirmation (denying our identification with body, mind, ego, etc., and identifying ourselves with pure consciousness). Finally, the question may be there of why we forget that we are pure consciousness?
According to Vedanta Maya, spiritual ignorance is the reason and from that comes our suffering. Vedanta has a classic example to explain such spiritual ignorance, the example of the snake and the rope. A farmer was walking down a village path at sunset, when it was almost dark. He saw a snake in front of him, became scared and started shouting for help. Some villagers came with a lantern and sticks to kill the snake, but when they projected the lantern's light on the snake they could see it was only a piece of rope lying on the path, not a snake. In this example the farmer's fear was generated by ignorance, wrong perception of reality: the rope had always been a rope, but was perceived as a snake.
Similarly we are pure consciousness but, out of ignorance and wrong perception of reality, we identify ourselves with body and mind. One may ask at what point and how one became subject to the spell of Maya and forgetful of one's own perfect, pure nature. Vedanta's answer to that question is that the question itself is irrelevant: the problem is not so much identifying at what point one became subject to Maya, but rather how to get out of that spell and avoid the suffering that Maya causes.
Maharaji then reported here an example given by Buddha. Suppose an arrow pierces your body, what is your priority: ask yourself who shot the arrow and why and how and from where? No, your first priority is to remove the arrow from your body and get medical treatment, your first priority is to take care of the suffering.
So, though it is a pertinent question at what point Maya cast its spell on us, Vedanta does not give a clear answer, but urges us to direct our efforts towards escaping such spell and terminating the suffering, through spiritual practice.