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Discussions about “religion” often fall into confusion because “religion” is a matter that can be considered from entirely different points of view. Two people speaking about “religion” may be, in fact, though unknowingly, speaking about two, things quite apart from each other. So, what is “religion”? This is the first question to be answered.

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One often considers, in “religion,” merely certain moral teachings.

Nearly every main religious book contains some sort of teaching concerning the moral conduct of man, such as: “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not kill a man,” or: “Thou shalt not kill any living creature,” “Thou shalt not get drunk,” etc., There are, no doubt, differences in the moral scale of values in different religions. For instance, to kill an animal is a sin, from the Jain point of view; from the Christian point of view, it is not. But any moral teaching presupposes some sort of society. Therefore, there is a minimum of prohibitions which we find in the moral code of every possible religion. Always and everywhere, such actions are “sinful” that are definitely anti-social, in the place and at the time where they are forbidden. And


such actions which cannot but be anti-social (such as, for instance, murder of man for personal motives) cannot be commended, or even tolerated, according to any possible code of morals. They constitute the stable minimum of prohibitions, which is common to all religions considered from the point of view of “morality.”

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Religions seem to differ more profoundly, when considered as metaphysical systems. Here, the very fundamentals are different, and there is not even a minimum of admitted notions, which can be taken as the common philosophical basis of all possible religions. The conception of Godhead, as well as that of creation, of soul, etc., is different, from one religious system to another. A religion can also well exist without the idea of God appearing at all, in the metaphysical outlook of its followers. Such is the case of Buddhism, of Jainism, and perhaps of other systems, less well known. The idea of salvation is also not an essential one; Shintoism has developed apart from it; and so had the national religions of Greece and Rome, long ago. Moreover, to a Christian and to a Hindu, for instance, who both put stress upon that idea, “salvation” means such an entirely different thing, that it is impossible, philosophically speaking, to call it a “common” notion of Hinduism and Christianity.

And if, neglecting to speak of different religions from a moral or intellectual point of view, one considers them merely in a spiritual light, as various paths to self-realisation, then, naturally, unity will appear. But it will not be unity among different religions; it will be the identity of the ultimate result of all religious disciplines, as regards


man. The place to which the various paths lead is the same, and, to the seekers of wisdom, that may be the only thing worth considering. But the paths remain different. In this world, religions do not meet, even as paths leading to a truer world.

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But, if no unity among religions can be found on the basis either of common metaphysical notions, either of common spiritual discipline, at least, a broad two-fold classification can be made, on a psychological ground.

There are religions, such as Christianity and Islam, based upon teachings which are considered by their followers as the only absolute truth. These teachings are, therefore, supposed to be essentially good for all mankind, and it is the duty of every believer to preach them, by word and by deed, so that every man may accept them and be saved. Such religions style themselves as world-religions. The ideal of their followers is the unification of all mankind, on the basis both of certain moral and spiritual teachings, and of certain metaphysical beliefs, looked upon as absolute truth, expressed once for all at a certain time, in a certain place, by a certain person, and recorded in a certain sacred book to which, naturally, no alteration and no addition can be made.

Uses and customs can easily differ, from place to place, according to geographical, political, and other conditions, provided their existence is not a denial of any of the fundamental beliefs upon which the whole religious structure lies. Culture itself can differ, from nation to nation, as long as these common beliefs remain. What greater difference can there be, for instance, than that


between the culture of a Presbyterian Scotchman and of a Catholic Spaniard, or of a Syrian Christian, or of an Abyssinian? Yet, there is, between them, a minimum of common beliefs, sufficient to justify their common claim to be called “Christians.” The same thing could be said about a Mohammadan from Arabia or Iraq, compared to a Mohammadan from Java.

We call “creedal religions” all religions of the type of Christianity or Islam, in which the link among the faithful is necessarily common beliefs, but not necessarily common civilisation or culture.

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But there are religions which do not rest upon any moral or metaphysical “truth,” considered as absolute. Their followers may or may not accept a certain number of common beliefs, and, if they do, still they do not condemn the many possible beliefs, in religions different from theirs, as “false,” nor do they look down upon them as “precious teachings entangled with superstition.” In fact, the followers of each one of such religions generally do differ from one another on the ground of metaphysics, of morals, or of religious discipline. Take the instance of the cultured ancient Greeks, followers of the same national religion but, at the same time, followers of different (and antagonistic) philosophies. There was, in that national religion of theirs, no common metaphysical system, comparable with that which we find in hellenised Christianity. Take the instance of the cultured modern Hindus, of different sects. There is very little common in their religious outlook, or in the particular discipline they may follow. One worships a personal God; one worships


God as impersonal; a third one does not believe in God at all; one practises hate yoga, another practises nothing but bhakti. Still, they are all Hindus, just as the ancient Greeks, inspite of their opposite metaphysical views, or of their personal devotion to entirely different Gods, were the followers of the same “religion.”

It is easy to see that the word “religion,” in this case, bears a totally different meaning from that which it had, while applied to “creedal religions” such as Christianity or Islam.

Here, there is no truth, whether concerning God, soul, salvation, creation, or anything else, which should be considered as absolute by all men. Every truth is relative, being the outcome of man’s experience, which is necessarily limited. And therefore, metaphysics (the common ground of religious thought, in “creedal” religions) are a matter of individual outlook. Spiritual realisation is also individual. The knowledge that it gives cannot be transmitted to a crowd. Even the path to realisation cannot be shown but to those who have undergone, through previous experience, a sufficient evolution.

In other words, in religions which are not creedal, there can be no conflict between “religion” and “philosophy,” no more than between “religion” and “science,” for a broad spirit of free research — that what is called, in modern language, scientific spirit — is applied there, without restriction, to every sphere of life, including spiritual realisation. And there can be no common beliefs commended to men at different stages of evolution. There can be no one-sided outlook on God, soul, etc., “good for all mankind,” to be preached from country to country.

Hinduism is the most perfect type of such “religions”


which we shall call, presently, for sake of convenience, “non-creedal,” until further analysis allows us to characterise them more positively.

We have said that, when one speaks of “religion,” one often speaks, in reality, of morals or metaphysics. One still more often speaks of a certain culture and civilisation, characterising a certain society.

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Even the idea of a “creedal” religion is not entirely free from this historical notion of civilisation and society. The creed is one thing, and society is another, that is true. But a creed without any society organised upon it, stands nowhere as a religion, while a society, without any creedal unity, but of which the members share a common civilisation and a common culture, has a sound existence of its own, as a society. The great difference between creedal and non-creedal religions lies in the fact that, while the principle of unity and the sense of brotherhood are to be found, among the followers of a creedal religion, in commonness of belief, (and not necessarily of culture and civilisation) that principle of unity and that sense of brotherhood are to be found, among the followers of a non-creedal religion, in commonness of culture and of civilisation, (and not necessarily of belief).

Two Indians, of whom one believes in God and one does not, are two Hindus, provided they both share that culture and civilisation which is the only thing all Hindus are supposed to have in common, which is, really, “Hinduism.” While an American or a Frenchman who has accepted one of the doctrines of manifold “Hindu philosophy,” Vedantism or any other, or any special type of Hindu


devotion is no Hindu as long as he has not adopted such a style, not only of thinking, but also of living, by which he enables himself to become one of the units of Hindu society; moreover, socially speaking, he is no Hindu as long as a sufficient portion, at least, of Hindu society, has not accepted him as one of its members. It is in one’s own hand to become a Christian. It is not in one’s own hand alone to become a full-fledged Hindu, (or a follower of any other non-creedal religion).

Civilisation and culture are not free from geographical, as well as historical conditions. A follower of a non-creedal religion has necessarily, along with the greatest spirit of relativity, (and therefore of toleration) in every matter where his religious “philosophy” is concerned, a geographical sense of religion, in every matter where “religion,” to him, means society. One can dream of unifying mankind through certain beliefs, (though this also, is an illusion) but one cannot even imagine the same civilisation, the same style of life, the same type of society all over the world. Therefore, in a non-creedal religion, no missionary activities can be conceived beyond certain geographical boundaries.

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One may wonder, after this, if there is anything or not which is neither morality, nor metaphysics, nor society, but “real” religion. And if there be such a thing, what is it? Can it not be defined anyhow, except negatively?

The only thing which can, it seems, apart from all the rest, be called “real” religion, is spiritual experience.

It is clear that, however different religions may be, religion is one, if considered in that light alone. And it is


in considering spiritual experience, which ends in the realisation of truth, that teachers like Sri Ramakrishna were able to say that, “just as all rivers run to the sea,” so do all religions have but one goal, one end: self-realisation.

Spiritual experience certainly gives knowledge concerning certain metaphysical entities and certain metaphysical problems. But it is to be carefully distinguished from metaphysics, for it is not something which can be discussed, and reasoned upon through the power of intellect alone, as generally metaphysics are. It has to be gone through. (In fact, the existence of metaphysics apart from spiritual experience, is a sign of the weakness of man, who feels as if he must have ideas about what he does not know and cannot understand And all really great metaphysical systems, which have marked their influence upon the evolution of human thought, rest upon the background of some spiritual experience.) Creedal religions, such as Christianity, are right when they say that their dogmas cannot be understood through intellect. From the point of view of real religion, (spiritual experience) these religions are only incomplete when they ask one to believe in their dogmas, without giving him the means to realise the truth contained in them, and also, when they assert that there is no salvation for whoever does not accept those dogmas.

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But spiritual experience is personal. It cannot be transmitted. Even the desire of acquiring it cannot be created in everybody. And, merely intellectual acceptance of the truth contained in the words of a certain realised man, or blind faith in the writings of an “inspired” book,


cannot stand for spiritual experience — for self-realisation. That is why one can find, among the followers of creedal religions, a certain morality, a great amount of theology, but such a little real religion, (personal realisation of truth) compared to what could be expected.

What can be done is not to teach spirituality, but, through the habits of life, through customs and ceremonies, through art and culture, and daily dealings, to create an “atmosphere” in which spiritual experience appears to be the ultimate experience of man. No common creed is necessary for that. Only certain permanent influences, in certain special social surroundings, are. And that is what the Hindus have understood, from time immemorial up to the present day. The great religious value of Hinduism — manifold on the ground of morals, as well as of beliefs, but unified by culture, by artistic expression, by the “style of life” it evolves — lies in that fact.

But this is not the only reason, this is not even the main reason for which we want to preserve and strengthen Hindu civilisation, and organise Hindu society throughout India.

Apart from the high philosophies contained in the Hindu Scriptures and from the high spiritual ideal realised by the Hindu seers, we want to defend Hindu civilisation and society, against the increasing forces of rival proselytising societies strongly united by the consciousness of a common creed. Even if India itself were to disappear just now, the philosophical and spiritual inheritance of the Hindus would remain. Mankind would preserve it, because it is worth preserving. It is immortal, and needs no one to defend it. What we want to defend, we repeat, is Hindu society, the Hindu people, the bearers


of Hindu civilisation, whose number is decreasing every day. They are the body of Hinduism, of which the high philosophies and spiritual realisations are the everlasting soul.

Our point is that Hindu society must not perish; nor must it stagnate in its present state of weakness. We want it to live because we know it can be mighty and beautiful, and also, because it is Indian, nay, because it is India herself.

We have no other reason to defend it.