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Present Day Religion in India
by Dr. C.S. Shah Bookmark and Share

The sudden spurt in the publications of articles, essays, books, and reviews on and about Vedanta might create an impression in the minds of Westerners that the present day India must be highly religious. They may feel that Indians are leading highly spiritual and ethical life. Some may be desirous of visiting India on this account. But they may be disturbed to see the prevailing chaotic conditions; masses immersed in rituals and superstitions. On one hand they shall find a minor percentage of people deeply engrossed in 'enjoying' their riches, while on the other hand, many a visitor may be repulsed to find the slums, the disease, the want, the distress, and poverty in many parts of the country. This may cause disillusionment in the hearts of sincere seekers of the Truth.

Decline of Dharma in India

In fact, majority of Hindus living in India - about 750 million, do not understand, study, or practice the Vedantic Sanatana Dharma - eternal religion. The Indians, as with other peoples, also have no clear idea about the concepts (tenets) of their own philosophy and religion. The Hindu culture of ancient past, of Rishis and Seers, finds at best a distorted caricature in present day Indian society.

As to the etiology of this state of spiritual decline, many historical factors can be held responsible. Six to seven centuries of Muslim and British foreign rule is one of the main factors. This caused a great deal of deterioration in the collective psyche of Indian masses. Probably some are still affected with slavish mentality and depression. Introduction of a particular education system by the British further alienated the masses from their roots in ancient teachings of Veda and Upanishads. In stead, the literate Indian middle class was pleased to accept materialistic philosophy of the West.

Nature of Decline: The Indians were losers on both the counts.

First, consciously or with design, they were distracted from their beliefs in ancient religion which supplied some 'idol' to everyone to practice his/her faith. This 'idol worship' or 'image worship' was and is one of the most beautiful systems in the Hindu religious tradition. It encouraged everyone - from a totally ignorant peasant to highly intelligent scholar - to raise his/her spiritual and religious understanding and knowledge. Everyone had freedom to choose from various 'forms of God' suitable to his/her taste, aptitude, and level of spiritual growth. Hence, to worship a clay image of some goddess, or more formal worship of definite forms of Shiva or Vishnu, or still higher forms of spiritual practices like Yoga and meditation, all found equal importance in the Hindu religion.

Many a great sadhaka - spiritual aspirant - went beyond the formal worship and rituals to seek the Truth - who I am - on the basis of discrimination and renunciation. The transient and illusory ever changing world could not be accepted as the final destiny to seek, nor was it accepted that the solution to the question of one's real nature could be found by analyzing the secrets of external nature alone. In fact this world and worldliness - samsara - was seen as an obstacle to further human progress, and hence, these great scientists of spirituality - sages - gave up every sense pleasure to seek transcendental absolute, unchanging, and eternal Blissful Reality. The same concept was understood to mean seeking eternal Love or Freedom, or to mean Liberation or oneness with God.

Effect of Scientific Revolution

Secondly, in last two centuries, reason, rationality, and objectivity were to prove the ascendancy of science over religion. The western phenomenon of scientific progress led to the decline in the importance of religion in our daily life and social interactions. At best, it was relegated to personal prayers and worship in one corner of the room, or an isolated Church or a temple. Religion was considered to be a hindrance for social upliftment or economic progress. Sometimes even war was fought to affirm individual superiority or authority of either science or religion. The materialistic comfort, which the industrial revolution sought to provide, soon became the aim in life, not only for the rich but also for the poor. Hoping against hope, everyone tried to extract his/her share of riches from the tempting magic of science. No doubt, this zeal to improve upon one's power - physical, intellectual, and political - threw up many a genius to rise from poverty to richness, or to acquire exalted places as innovative scientists.

But has it solved the problem of poverty, disease, want, and ignorance all around? It has not. Taken as a whole the world is always divided in a minority rich and powerful, and majority subjugated, poor, and exploited. For instance, science can and has provided better quality and better yield of grains, but has not fed every belly. There are more undernourished and malnourished persons than the well-fed or obese people. Science cannot establish the dignity of human soul, nor can it promote ethics and morality in a society. The source of values is the Self or Atman, and not the science. This is not to demean the importance of science, but at the same time we have to accept its limitations!

Present Day Indian Scenario

Based on these observations, the religious-spiritual scenario of present day India can be summed up as follows:

As everywhere, most of the influential Indian middle class is under the sway of 'scientific temper'; it worships science as more logical and rational than religion. The poor, ignorant and illiterate are still entangled in the web of superstition and rituals. However, unlike Western societies, the impact of 'scientific outlook' is less damaging in India. This is probably due to the rich Indian tradition of Vedanta philosophy and religious out look based on that philosophy. In fact, there is no difference in philosophy and religion in India.

The impact of science is seen as a way to improvement in religion, and not as antagonistic to religious beliefs. The Indians, unknowingly though, tried to place science as one additional tool to seek the Truth. This particular aspect is highly prominent and visible in the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda, and therefore, Sri Ramakrishna -Vivekananda teachings and literature are full of very good articles, essays, studies, and books on the subject of science and religion.

We can say that, still, as compared to the Western world, the Indian masses are more religious and spiritual in their outlook despite poverty, illiteracy, and superstitions. This is explained on the basis of the advent of highly refined souls in the field of spirituality in India. Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, Lord Buddha, Mahavir, Sri Ramakrishna, etc. are but to name a few. One cannot find such large number of Seers - Rishis or sages - of Truth anywhere else in the world. These scientists have directly realized and experienced the Truth, i.e. the Divinity of each soul, and have brought these truths for the welfare of all in the form of Vedas and Upanishads.

This knowledge of spiritual nature of human soul is (and was) the saving grace for religion in India. Today we have many active sects wherein sincere seekers are trying to realize these great truths for themselves and are also attempting to spread the scientific message of Vedanta all over. Some may appear less rational, others may emphasis and give priority to only one of the four paths to reach the same truth, viz. Yoga of knowledge, meditation, action, or devotion; but it is not fair to doubt the sincerity of these aspirants.

Sri Ramakrishna Math and Mission with its HQ at Belur Math, Swadhaya movement of Sri Pandurang Sastri Athavale, TM of Sri Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Teachings of Sri Raman Maharshi, and Sri Aurobindo Ashrama at Pondecheri are a few sincere organizations from where the nectar of Indian Wisdom can be tasted.

It is expected that the true sincere seeker of truth would use his/her discretion in selecting the path. It is also equally true that as the thing sought is God, the trouble to reach the goal will be immense - 'like walking over razor's edge', as one of the Upanishad mentions. 

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