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The quest of mankind ever since its birth has been to worship God, to unravel the mysteries behind outward appearances, and to grasp the fundamental truth. This is the genesis of religion. The worshipper has before his eyes the eternal bliss of paradise, or some similar view, which he aims at as his final approach. There have thus arisen religions in the world with their prescribed forms and rituals, based upon the personal practical experiences of their great founders. But after the lapse of thousands of years, when the entire surroundings have changed and life has undergone a radical transformation, the same old forms and principles are being adhered to. The outer form alone now remains intact while the inner spirit is lost. The result is that the vehicle of religion has become hackneyed, and it will not be wrong to say that the present-day religion has become only a relic of the past or the bones of the dead.

We have really buried true religion in the grave. Only we clap hands in the name of religion and do nothing else. The real spirit is lost and only formalities remain in its place. Outward forms and rituals are the only things that remain open to view, which are followed with extreme orthodoxy and tenacity without even the least touch of reality. Our faith in reality has thus diminished to the point of extinction. It is, rather, twisted into forms and rituals alone. Gradually it degenerates into bigotry or prejudice, which has unfortunately become the permanent feature of present-day religion. Our blind faith in formalities keeps us in the dark regarding reality, and unconsciously we develop within us a feeling of hatred against those who believe in other forms and rituals. There are, consequently, jealousies and quarrels among the followers of different religions.

India has achieved political freedom, but self-independence, or the freedom of soul, is still wanting. The main obstacle is the want of capacity for a broader vision and free thinking. The whole atmosphere is surcharged with prejudice and rivalry. The entire structure of society and culture rests on the same foundation.

Sectional jealousies are the main cause of the downfall of our civilisation. There are, at present, no less than three thousand castes in India, each forming a distinct unit. These castes were originally the different guilds of workers and artisans organised in order to solve the question of the division of labour. But today each guild tries to cut itself off from the rest of the community, forming a separate independent unit and harbouring feelings of hatred and jealousies towards the other. The whole society is thus proceeding towards disintegration. The time is now at hand when this evil shall soon cease to exist. Nature is at work to put an end to this evil. The scythe of time is unsparing. Let this serve as a warning to the ardent supporters and advocates of caste prejudice. They cannot escape the consequences unless they mend in time. The will of God must have its course.

Prejudice is the greatest evil, rather the deadliest poison, to spiritual life. It keeps one confined to himself, losing all access to a broader vision. It creates narrow-mindedness, and all prospects of development and progress are lost to those who pin their souls to it. Prejudice breeds hatred towards others, and it is nothing but a feeling of false self-superiority in a disguised form. If you nurture this evil, you thereby add one more link to the existing chain of egoism. Consequently, you remain farther away from reality. The realisation of the Limitless thus becomes an impossibility.

Universal love – the very fundamental basis of religion – having disappeared altogether, religion, which was generally considered to be a link between man and God, has now become a barrier instead. If we keep ourselves bound fast to a particular form or practice without a clear idea of its real significance and final approach, we are probably committing the greatest blunder.

God is not to be found within the fold of a particular religion or sect. He is not confined within certain forms or rituals, nor is He to be traced out from within the scriptures. Him we have to seek for in the innermost core of our heart.

There are various conceptions of God. People look upon Him differently according to their capacity and understanding. The most commonly accepted conception of God is Eternal Power. But the philosophic view goes much beyond and includes the idea of Nirguna Brahma, or Indeterminate Absolute, which is above all multiplicity and distinctions. It is the ultimate cause and substratum of existence, the supra-active Centre of the entire manifestation, or the Absolute Base. It is beyond quality, activity or consciousness. It is also known as Para Brahma.

Next comes the idea of God as Supreme Existence. We see the universe with all its diversities and differentiations, and we are led to believe in its creator and controller. We call him Ishwar or Saguna Brahma (Determinate Absolute). We think of Him as a formless Eternal Existence which is Omnipotent and Omniscient and possesses all the finest attributes. He is the efficient cause of the world and He is also its preserver and destroyer. It is only when viewed from this lower standpoint that God (as the God of religion) becomes an object of worship. This is the final approach of almost all the religions.

So far, God is conceived of as nirakar, or formless, but possessing of certain attributes. This is in itself a difficult idea for the common folk to grasp. They therefore, try to secure an easier approach by taking up a more tangible form. Some, therefore, think of Him as seated on the highest heaven, administering justice and benevolence to all. Others think of Him as an all-pervading power controlling the universe. Thus, by degrees, we are in a way gradually drifting away from the nirakar, or formless aspect, to some tangible form, or sakara. Much has been said in the religious books about the two conceptions, the nirakar and the sakara, but really both conceptions, as generally understood, are greatly misleading. Really, God is neither nirakar nor sakara but beyond both. Those who treat him as sakara limit the Limitless within bounds of form and shape. The result is that they cultivate narrow-mindedness and remain forever within bounds. If we take Him as nirakar, the very idea brings to our mind the limitation of attributes as creator, controller and destroyer.

Even the idea of God as Power or Energy is still a limited conception. We go on ahead to the idea of nonentity or zero, still we are in a way somewhat away from reality. What then? Expression now fails. Sufficient be it to say that if we are really away from both conceptions, we may think ourselves to be in the right direction. So long as we remain confined within the bounds of religion, the God of religion remains in our view and we remain entangled within one or the other view. The highest spiritual attainment is only possible when we go beyond.

In fact, spirituality begins where religion ends. Religion is only a preliminary stage for preparing a man for his march on the path of freedom. When he has set his foot on the path, he is then beyond the limits of religion. The end of religion is the beginning of spirituality; the end of spirituality is the beginning of Reality, and the end of Reality is the real bliss. When that too is gone, we have reached the destination. That is the highest mark, which is almost inexpressible in words.

Worship of gods and deities in various forms is a crude development of the same sakara theory. Worship of every power of nature and even of mountains, rivers and trees is a further degradation of the same view. What a pity! Instead of worshipping the Master, we are worshipping the servants, ignoring the Master entirely, and we are not prepared to hear even a word against our set prejudices. The result is that today we find so many sects and creeds, each worshipping its own god or goddess in its own particular way. Evidently the goal before their eyes is not even liberation, but in most cases deliverance from some particular form of misery or for some material gain.

People are driven to such forms of worship either by the force of circumstances or through the faulty guidance of those who are themselves quite in the dark in the matters of Self-realisation. Lord Krishna has made it clear in the Gita that the worship of gods may lead you at the most to their sphere only, which is a limited one and far below the point of liberation. They themselves have no capacity to go beyond. The approach of their devotees beyond this point is, therefore, out of the question. Thus it is evident that these gods and deities are of no avail to us if we really aim at Reality. I have illustrated the point more clearly in my book Efficacy of Raja Yoga.

A mechanical form of worship, commonly adopted by those hankering after gods and goddesses to serve their worldly ends, is also another absurdity. It is no worship at all. They only play the part of a labourer, so to say, and at the close they get their day’s wages for the physical labour done. The solid material form of God entertained by them in the mind and worshipped with faith and devotion leads to internal grossness, and if the practice continues for a long time, they become more and more solid, barring their approach to Reality. The result in such cases is evident to almost every eye.

Ancient sages finding worship of the Immaterial Absolute a difficult task for the masses to start with had devised certain convenient means for their uplift. They made a start by taking up something apparent in the solid form which the masses could easily grasp or understand. Now the things which could be easily grasped or understood were different for different people. For the people of the lowest standard, they adopted something in an apparently solid form. For others more elevated, some abstract form, e.g. splendour, light or any godly attribute, was introduced to start with. For highly cultured minds, a subtle idea of God was enough. Thus it was only for the people of the lowest standard that they had adopted a solid form, such as a picture or image, and that too only as a temporary measure. When they attained some progress, they gave it up and embarked upon the next stage, taking up a finer form. It is just like teaching writing to a baby by making her move her pen along the prints of the letters. After a little practice, the process is given up and the baby is able to write independently without the help of the prints.

Thus the solid form or image was to be adopted by beginners for a time only, after which they came to the next stage. Besides, the image set up for the purpose was fully charged with spiritual force so that those sitting by, in devotion and worship, gained some of it through constant radiation. Now, persons of calibre having the power to infuse into the image the spiritual force are rare, although the process of prana pratishta still continues as a matter of mere formality. The result is that the places and images thus charged thousands of years ago have, by this time, almost lost all their effect, and consequently no practical gain is derived by those going there for devotion and worship. It is, however, beyond doubt that the process was introduced only for the people of the lowest standard with little brain, who could not otherwise devote themselves to the Lord in any way. It is but certain that the practice, if tenaciously followed to the last, defeats its very purpose and does not provide any spiritual advantage. Saint Kabir has nicely expressed the idea in the following lines:

If by worshipping stone one can reach God, I shall be ready to worship a mountain. But for this purpose the grinding-stone which grinds the corn to feed the world may be better.

To my view, those who stick to this sort of worship throughout their life are wading deep through the mire of ungodliness. It is extremely difficult to extricate them out of it. In course of time, after constant practice, they become so firmly rooted to it that they cannot even think of getting away from it at any stage. They remain at a standstill. They do not want to get rid of the ideas they have already imbibed. Further, they apply their power or thought and make them stronger and more solid. Everything casts a reflection in a form similar to its own. If the thing is subtle, its reflection will also be subtle in character, and if it is gross, the reflection will likewise be gross. If we concentrate on a solid thing, we are sure to become ourselves inwardly solid.

Great havoc has been wrought by teachers who have presented to the ignorant masses everything they had learnt from the holy books in a hard and solid form. It destroys the reflexive power of mind. If one develops such a horrible state, he is gone forever. He loses his approach to a broader vision, and the capacity for further progress becomes extinct. Such persons may be compared to frogs in a well with a little field of activity which they consider all and enough. They remain whirling around in a closed sphere, hemmed in on all sides. They are hammering on the same thing all their life. Stories and illustrations of gods are all and enough for them. When the practice continues for long, the cells of the brain are affected and they become saturated with the thoughts, which grow stronger day by day. Finally, the whole nervous system is affected. The external opacity gradually creeps inwards and completes the work. They are now completely impervious, both within and without, to the passage for the divine light. Their approach to the inner Self is completely barred. I shall prefer to call them living stones. The hardened crust which they thus developed keeps them aloof from the slightest association with anything higher or finer. They are almost spellbound by its effects, which they consider to be a spiritual stage although in fact they are far away from it.

My personal experience in the spiritual field has revealed to me that it is a pretty hard and tedious task to shatter the hard crust created by such forms of practice from the hearts of those coming to me for spiritual pursuit. If one wants to free himself from these bondages of soul, he must necessarily clear off the layer of grossness and solidity settled over his mind as a result of these stultifying practices.

Another form of worship commonly thought to be more advanced is to sing or recite in chorus, lines in praise of the god or goddess they worship. People assemble together in parties and at late hours in the night to sing in chorus at the top of their voices, disturbing the calm atmosphere of the night. They think that they are thereby discharging a pious duty of injecting, as they say, into the ears of as many as they can, the sacred name of God. Not only this, they sometimes even make use of microphones to broadcast the sound. They are totally unmindful of the discomfort or inconvenience it might cause to persons who may possibly be in need of quiet repose after their day’s tiring labour or illness. It may, at the same time, be offering serious disturbance to those who practise meditation in the calm hours of the night. Moreover, the practice as generally followed today is of no great utility in our spiritual progress, and consequently no substantial gain is derived therefrom. The chanting’s of the sankirtanists may be compared more appropriately to the groans of a sick man, which only offer him a temporary consolation but do not actually relieve him of the pain. So these chanting’s are of no avail to them except that they are charmed by the effect of the sweet melody, which helps to draw their thoughts for the time being to the ideal in view.

Now, whatever we think or contemplate produces vibrations within. When these vibrations multiply, they create power which gushes out with a sound. The vibrations carry with them the effect of thoughts and feelings of individuals. So the pious effect of the pure minds in the company is likely to be spoiled by the evil effect of impious minds. The undesirable element must, therefore, be kept away if full advantage is to be derived from these performances. Such was the practice followed by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who held sankirtans (congregational chants) with the party consisting only of those thoroughly known to him for goodness and piety. The performance was therefore conducted behind closed doors and no outsider was allowed in.

Sankirtan, in fact, does not offer means of preliminary advancement but is rather helpful only to some extent after sufficient advancement. It is most effective only when conducted in a congenial atmosphere overflowing with pious thoughts. It may also serve as a recreative change after serious mental practices. Moreover, unfortunately today the ideal, too, kept in view during these practices is not the highest. In most cases they remain all along in close touch with the idea of gods in the physical form, keeping in view their gross body and activities. The effect of this gross conception is nothing but internal grossness and opacity, which they inhale all along during the practice.

A gross conception will necessarily keep you within bounds and limitations, and final approach or absolute freedom can never be possible. This is the reason why, in spite of years of practice, they find themselves at the lowest level of attainment. They are, so to say, searching for everything in a stagnant pool where even oxygen, necessary for the upkeep of life, is wanting. They have made such a pool their permanent abode.

Proper light is needed to make pearls. What we must strive for, in order to secure absolute freedom from bondage, is to become the lightest and the finest, closely corresponding with godly attributes and securing complete similarity with Him. The nectar of real life is for him and him alone who brings himself up to the standard required for the purpose.