In the Light of ...|Aug 27, 2004 12:31 PM| by:

The Future of Religion – I

When we look at the contemporary religious scene we find two contradictory trends. On the one hand a strong and brutal resurgence of religious fundamentalism; on the other hand, in the more enlightened minds, a seeking for a more universal and personal spirituality beyond the church, dogma and the priesthood of organised religion. We have to understand the source of these trends from an integral perspective with an eye on the future.  

Some of those who are inclined towards universal spirituality are dismissive of religion and tend to think or say that the age of religion is over and the future belongs to spirituality. Undoubtedly, the age of certain types of dogmatic and religious assertions is over and spirituality is likely to be the governing idea of the future. But does that mean the age of inspired scriptures, mythologies and philosophies, symbols and gestures of worship and the beauty and grandeur of the temple and the cathedral are also over? All these are part of religion and it would be a rather sterile spirituality which rejects these beautiful elements of religion.

We have to reject all the negative distortions which have crept into the spirit of religion. But at the same time we have to preserve the positive elements and use them or renovate them with a clear understanding of their significance for our progressive religious and spiritual development or they may take new forms under a new spiritual inspiration of the future.

Perhaps none of these positive elements of religion will be missing in the spirituality of the future, but they will be used with a new and better understanding of their significance or may even take different forms while expressing the new values of a future spirituality.

In this series of articles we will be viewing religion in a balanced and futuristic perspective, in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s vision, looking deeply into the luminous as well as the dark side of religion, critically examining various approaches suggested for its renovation and gazing into its future destiny. 

To cling with an unthinking blindness to dogmas and customs of a religion just because we are born into it is undoubtedly the most uncreative approach to religion. But to reject all religion with lofty elitism as mere superstition or something inferior because we have some big spiritual ideas in our mind is also not conducive to a true understanding of religion. We need a more balanced outlook with which we can see the truth behind the luminous and the dark side of religion, with an eye on its spiritual future. Let us first look at the brighter side of religion.

The Immortal Aspiration  

The word religion is derived from a Latin word which means “to return”. This is precisely the essence of the immortal religious aspiration in Man, to return to the source of our own being from which somehow we seem to have strayed, wandered or fallen. The highest intuition revealed in the past religious traditions of the world indicate that there is a supreme Reality – call it God or whatever name you like — behind or beyond our body, life and mind, which is not only the source of our own individual being but also the source of the universe.

This discovery is expressed in many different ways in various religions. The Bible says the kingdom of God is within you. The Koran declares that God is closer to you than your jugular veins; The Vedas teach us that what you call as God is nothing but your own highest Self and this Self is one with the Self of the Universe. The great sages and saints all over the world, who are able to find their way back to this hidden root and source of their being, describe the nature of this divine Reality or Self in superlative and ecstatic terms as Infinity and Eternity, fountain of everlasting Peace, Love, Beauty and Bliss, and the source all harmony, fulfillment and perfection. Here comes the practical utility of the study of religion. For here, we are in the presence of a great power of human endeavour which claims to have discovered the highest truths of Man, God and the Universe and the power to solve all the problems of man by leading him to a state of peace that passeth all understanding. The study of religion is of ultimate importance because the highest aim of religion coincides with the highest aim of life.

No amount of materialism or secularism can destroy this religious aspiration in man, precisely because it is an irrepressible urge which comes from the eternal source of our being. The materialist or secular denial can only smother or suppress it but not kill it. When the force of these denials wears off due to its negative results or when the mind and heart of man become more receptive to this primal inner urge, it returns with redoubled vigour. If an age, civilization or community suppresses or discourages this urge with its spirit-denying values, it has an adverse effect on the human psyche. The eminent psychologist Carl Jung said that the psychological maladies of most of his patients were due to the suppression of the religious urge by the rationalistic and secular culture of the West. And when this cloud of denial passes away and the consciousness of human beings gets liberated and clearer in the course of evolution, this religious urge manifests spontaneously as the aspiration for higher values like truth, beauty and goodness or the search for some form of inner moral, psychological or spiritual fulfillment. This is the source of the higher aspiration which is now emerging in every section of present society after a long reign of soul-stifling materialism, even in a grossly material and secular activity like business. As Sri Aurobindo sums up the essence of the religious aspiration:

“The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation — for it survives the longest periods of skepticism and returns after every banishment, — is also the highest which the thought can envisage. It manifests itself in the divination of the Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the ancient dawns of human knowledge have left us their witness to this constant aspiration: today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primal longing. The ancient formula of Wisdom promises to be its last, – God, Light, Freedom, Immortality.”[1]

Stress on the Inner Development  

The other positive feature of religion is that it is perhaps the only human activity which emphasizes strongly on the moral, aesthetic and spiritual development of humanity. In fact, most of the ethical and spiritual ideals of humanity and some of the greatest works of art are inspired by religion.

This religious stress on the inner development of humanity has created a sharp distinction between religious and secular life: ‘religion’ emphasizing on the inner spiritual development of humanity and the ‘secular’ stressing on the progress of the material and earthly life. Sometimes each went to the extreme, religion turning away from the earthly life as an illusion and plunging into an other-worldly Beyond and the secular sinking into a gross enjoyment of the earthly life, rejecting all spirituality. But this emphasis of religion on the inner development of humanity, whatever may be its excesses, is in the right direction because that is the path towards the highest fulfillment of humanity. It is also relevant for the future.

The progressive thinkers on environment and ecology all over the world are almost unanimous in their conclusion that the present ecological condition of our planet cannot support any further material and economic progress on the present lines of development. The future of human evolution has to be in the non-material dimension, in the intellectual, moral, cultural and spiritual dimensions, which don’t make many demands on the already overstrained ecology of Nature. Sri Aurobindo, looking at human progress from a different angle in an evolutionary spiritual perspective, said the same thing in the very beginning of the century. He wrote in Bande Matharam: “In the next great stage of human progress, it is not a material, but a spiritual, moral and psychic advance that has to be made”. [2] And Arnold Toynbee the eminent historian made an interesting prophecy in one of his lectures given in America. He said that in the future when religion will replace technology as the dominant power of human evolution India will conquer the world.

But what is the type of “religion” which can provide the right guidance to the higher evolution of humanity? When we look at the past history of religion, we see the sad and tragic story of the best turning into the worst. A great power with immense potential for bringing light, peace, harmony and unity to the world becoming an instrument of division, conflict, destruction and unthinking bigotry. If this is the type of “religion” which is going to lead the future evolution of humanity, God save mankind!

So what went wrong? What is the cause of this great failure of organized religions? We will discuss this question in our next article.