By Sivanath Sastri
I take advantage of this opportunity to lay before you something like a definite idea of the things that our theism is aiming at. The strength of our union and co-operation greatly depends upon the definiteness of our aims and aspirations. In a liberal religion like ours we are bound to allow very great liberty amongst its members in the matter of philosophical and theological views and doctrines. Some may be monistic in their sympathies, others dualistic; some may incline in favour of the jnana school of Shankara, others to the Bhakti School of Ramanuja; some may be emotional and mystic, others may be practical; some may have preference for particular great man or great men, others for others; some may extol silent communion and prayer, others may have a leaning towards practical well-doing and so on. Thus our theism should admit within its fold all grades and shades of opinion. Perfect unity in the matter of creed should never be intended and can never be attained. The history of Christianity is a lesson before us. From it we have learnt the consequences of creed definition and of priest-craft at its bottom. We are all aware of the fact that owing to these causes the history of Christianity has ever been the history of bitter persecutions; and consequently, it has retarded human progress instead of helping it. Let us beware before we put our steps in the same paths. Fortunately, our gospel is a gospel of freedom, and we should carefully preserve the distinctive character of that gospel. The moment we shall put forward the doctrines of a man or a set of men, however great or holy, as an infallible authority, and along with it set in motion the engines of persecution for those who differ from them, that very moment our theism shall cease to be universal religion that it professes to be and shall descend into the level of a sectarian faith.
But how can there be unity and co-operation, someone will perhaps ask, if there be vagueness about the essential principles. In reply I have to say I am not pleading for vagueness of conceptions. I am pleading for liberty and for brotherly toleration. Let a man have strong and firm convictions as to the principles of his faith. Such a thing is highly important for him. How can he act as an honest and earnest man without them? Let him have his personal predilections and spiritual preferences. Let him indulge them to his heart’s content, we are not going to meddle with them. All that we want and that we claim is that, he should keep his soul free and should extend the same consideration to other theists who have other convictions and other personal preferences.
Allowing that liberty to individual members, it is yet possible for all of us to unite for some definite practical aims and I shall lay before you this day some such practical aims and purposes, about which, there is and there ought to be, general agreement amongst us.
Now the first mission of the Theistic Church in this country is to replace the old idolatrous ceremonialism of the land by the pure spiritual worship of the One True God. Here we are met by tremendous difficulties. The first difficulty is to vanquish the rooted conviction of our people that worship is impracticable without the aid of images and symbols. Theism has existed in India as a secret vein, say they , even from the Vedic times, but it has never aspired to be a popular faith, owing to the inherent difficulty of addressing popular imagination. The Rishis clearly understood this difficulty and made up their minds to keep it for the spiritual edification of the enlightened few alone. Pointing their fingers to the other religions of the world these critics may also say – theism has never existed in the world in a pure and unalloyed form; and these their religions though discarding image-worship, yet took shelter in infallible authority and in rank ceremonialism of their own. Thus this part of the mission of the Theistic Church has little or no chance to succeed.
I feel the force of their argument; but beg to urge that it is not the symbols so much as man’s faith about the presence of the Unseen and the Eternal in those symbols that gives their spiritual significance. In Bengal those who have not means enough for constructing an image, at times place before them a pot full of water with a twig of the mango tree upon it, and worship it is their deity. It is not the presence of any figure or of a pot, but the faith that their deity is in it, which is important. Why is it impossible to habituate men to the thought that wherever they may be, they are embosomed in the presence of the Unseen and Eternal. Nothing is easier or more natural to men than this faith in the Eternal. They have it instinctively. Follow a number of agriculturists or returning home after their work, listen to their conversation, and you are sure to find them referring for the redress of their wrongs, to a third person, to a moral Governor, who is “above all”. This moral Governor who visits them in unconscious moments, we have to render a fact of their conscious life. I do not find any inherent impossibility in it. It is only a question of education, training and example. All our bhakti teachers like Ramanuja, Nanak and Chaitanya, who appealed to the masses by popular methods, succeeded in rousing bhakti or love of God in the hearts of the common people, though owing to the backward state of the education in those days their bhakti was associated with many other things which we discard at present.
A parallel case as I have pointed out elsewhere, may be found in the
great revolution that has taken place in men’s political ideas. There was a
time when men were persuaded that anything in the shape of government could not
exist, without the kingly form of it. Under that conviction most repressive
measures were taken to suppress anything like a movement towards democracy. But
democracy has come in the course of time; and now the conviction is on the
other side – that all real government is self-government, i,e, government by
the people for themselves, and that all other governments are only provisional
trusteeships. It took a long time for the world to be convinced of this truth.
Similarly the rooted popular belief that effective religion cannot exist
without the props of image-worship and infallible authority may take a long
time in dying. But die it must. Time is come when webs of belief that have hidden
God from men, or have made immediate intercourse with Him unattainable must be
broken through and swept off and the whole life of man revealed as the field of
operation of the Supreme Being. We have to afford proof of this to silence our
adversaries by devout realization of this truth. The Eternal, who is real, is
coming to possess the world and we may prophesy that the days of triumph of
universal religion is near.
To be continued …
The inaugural address of Pandit S.N. Sastri as President of the Andhra Theistic Conference held at Coconada on the 29th and 30th March, 1907