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THE MISSION OF THEISM IN INDIA

By Sivanath Sastri

Continued from last issue…

The altered view of life necessarily leads the modern Indian theist into fields of social reform. If society is to be a tabernacle of the Supreme, we must necessarily strive to make it a fit tabernacle for Him. An old story about Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, repeated by Bengali women on Lakshmi’s day, goes on to say that, there was a poor Brahmin, so poor that he would not get his ordinary meals. All men pitied his poverty. This Brahmin at last made a vow and sought Lakshmi with fasts and penances. Lakshmi relented and came riding on her favourite carrier, the owl. But when she approached the Brahmin’s hut, she found it dirty, unwashed, unclean, thoroughly unworthy of her, and she returned in disgust, bidding the Brahmin to wash his house and get it ready for her, so that she might come back again and dwell there. So if we ask the Supreme to come and dwell in our domestic and social lives, we must make those lives a worthy abode for Him. Thus we are driven to the reform of our domestic and social lives. We cannot tolerate in them thing that are wrong. Therefore the next great thing that the Theistic Church is aiming at is the improvement of our domestic and social lives. The domestic life of man cannot be improved without improving the position of woman in it. Hence have the theists of Northern India bestowed so much attention to the questions of female education and female emancipation. As the home cannot be a centre of purity and peace without improving and honouring woman, man’s social life cannot be truly improved without abolishing caste which denied human brotherhood. Thus the Theistic Church has a great mission before it, namely, to break the fetters of caste and raise the depressed classes. Read the last census reports and see how many millions of men, women, and children have been doomed by Hindu custom to lives little raised above those of the brutes. Has our theism no mission for them? Certainly it has. It has a message of deliverance for these classes.

The third mission of Theism is equally important and flows out of the original conception of theism as a social religion, namely to divert the piety of the Hindu race into the new channel of active philanthropy. Our forefathers were deeply and earnestly pious. Nor do our people to this day lack earnest piety. Visit the great places of pilgrimage or frequent the great melas that occasionally take place in Allahabad, Hardwar and other places, and you will be quite struck to see how the piety of our race still flows like a mighty stream flooding the land. But this piety of our people finds its vent more in the observance of traditional and conventional forms and usages than in active philanthropy. Of course we have our choltries, our rest-houses for pilgrims, our bathing ghats by the sides of large rivers, our roads linking sacred places, and our tanks by the sides of such roads, which we all owe to the piety of our people. Add to these also the large number of beggars that are daily fed by that piety. We cannot say Hindu piety has shunned altogether the paths of philanthropy. But it has not gone far enough; nor has it manifested itself so strongly in these acts of philanthropy as in the observance of forms and rituals. We have to teach it a new lesson; namely that the service of man is the service of God; and we have to take it in new paths of service of man. With the growing needs of society there are endless calls for active philanthropy, and these calls are nowhere more earnest and more urgent than in this country. India is passing through great economic and industrial changes; work is passing out of the hands of the people; there is a heavy drain on her resources; famines have become an annual experience in one part or other of the country; the poverty, the misery, the moral and social degradation of the people afford ample field for the active philanthropist to exercise his powers. Only the new teaching of religion requires to be directed to those channels. It is the mission of the Theistic Church to do that. The Theistic Church too has not as yet fully developed its capacities in that line. All honour to other sister association like the Arya Samaj, and the Vivekananda Mission, who are already bestirring themselves for active philanthropic work. Their orphanages, their asylums for the sick and poor are standing monuments of the noble impulses that rule them. We theists should not be behindhand in these respects. Let us have more bhakti, more emotional fervour in piety, more devoted consecration to the exercises of our faith, but along with it let our piety flower itself in acts of devoted service of suffering humanity.

The fourth mission of theism is also deeply significant. In India we are familiar with two main currents of religious thought-one manifesting itself in the observance of external and often merely traditional and conventional forms, and the other in exercises of mysticism, where the imagination and the emotions have the chief part. Both these forms of religion have encouraged a divorce between religion and morality, as if to be religious one needs not be necessarily moral. The public women of Calcutta, who congregate in large numbers in the bathing ghats by the side of the Ganges every morning, many of them punctilious in the observance of the external forms of religion, are very religious in their way. The two things never seem incompatible to them. Similarly, there are mystic sects in many parts of the country, who hold secret assemblies of fellow-believers, and indulge in the wildest flights of imagination and religious emotion, and many of them seem to think that there is no necessary connection between religion and social morality. A man may deliberately cheat a neighbour and yet may be an advanced adept in his peculiar cult. So there is a sort of divorce between their mysticism and morality. Nay there are sects in this country, like the virachari  tantrics of Bengal, and the ballabhacharya sect of Gujrat, who indulge in acts of immorality as parts of their religious exercise. It is the mission of theism to put an end to such a state of things. The religion of the Theistic Church is a spiritual religion-that is a religion of conscience. The Supreme Being, its object of worship, is enthroned in the human soul and speaks through the human conscience. Morality therefore, is the outer or social side of that faith of which spirituality is the internal aspect. The theist is called upon to abjure everything that is wrong. He cannot tolerate in his private as well as his public conduct anything that is impure or unrighteous. He is to maintain in his own inner nature strict moral integrity as the only condition of his holding unclouded intercourse with his Maker. He is no utilitarian. The question of loss or gain does not enter into his calculation in shunning wrong and in doing the right. He shuns wrong because it disables him to hold unclouded intercourse with the Supreme Being. With him all reform, whether domestic or social, springs from this source, and everything therefore is spiritual.

The next mission of theism in this country has immense possibilities. By proclaiming the freedom of the human soul in the most inmost part of its nature, it lays the foundation for every other form of liberty whether individual or national. The soul of man is free to know the Supreme Being and to have communion with him; no infallible authority can lay down rules for Him in the matter of the development of his spiritual life. Therein lie the source and foundation for all other forms of liberty. By refusing to enslave the soul the theist lays the axe at the root of all other slaveries. That moment falls off from him the authority of books, or of priests or of tradition. Not that he ceases to have his reverences; not that he refuses to accept with profound respect everything that is good in the scriptures of his own country or of other races; but the highly important fact remains, that he accepts it not because it is sanctioned by tradition but because as a free being he finds good in it. It is to be observed therefore, that the Theistic Church promotes freedom even in domestic or social life. If my son, for instance, turns a Christian tomorrow I shall interfere as little as I have allowed my parents to do in my case. A man is the sole arbiter of his spiritual destiny. Anything that tends to rob man of this essential freedom is non-theistic. That being our conviction we have allowed the greatest liberty to our men and women to shape their lives just as they choose. Suppose there is a young widow in my house; if instead of choosing to remain as she is, consecrating herself to the service of others, she chooses to unite herself to a companion she deems worthy, she has every right to do so. The essential principle of social liberty is this,-that a man or woman has every right to use his or her talents just as he or she pleases, for his or her own good or the good of others, and none should interfere as long as he or she does not make any fellow man suffer by such conduct. It is the duty of society and specially of the Church, to exercise legitimate restraint upon men’s selfish propensities by wholesome teaching and moral public opinion. Thus it is an accepted principle of the Theistic Church that all government whether in individual or social life is self-government. If our Church, for instance has to be ruled, it is to be ruled by the members themselves and not by any infallible authority. It is a note-worthy fact that the two great schisms of this Church have taken place for the assertion of that right-the desire of members for conducting the affairs of their Church in the way they thought best. Let us ever cherish this principle of liberty.

Of the last mission of theism in this country this gathering is the visible representation. Here we have come together Bengalis from the North and Telugu people from the South, and what is it that has brought us together. It is the universal faith that we all profess. India is torn by sectarian conflicts. I need not stop to describe them in detail. You are daily spectators of these conflicts. Our impoverished, distressed, depressed, disunited, and sect-ridden motherland surely needs a faith that will unite her, that will cheer her up with fresh hope, throw new strength into her veins, give her a new message of freedom, and will combine the spirituality of her past with the progressive ideas of the present Such a faith is ours. However strong may be the opposition against it, largely owing to the development of a reactionary spirit in the land, our spiritual destiny is certain. India is developing in her own way that universal religion which is going to be the future religion of the world. All the intellectual and social forces of the present times point in that direction. As the light of the sun careers from the East to the West, the East also, has ever given the light of religion to the West. So this theism of ours, though springing from a subject race and therefore, regarded with contempt by the civilized nations of the West, will yet teach them a new lesson of spirituality. So the Jews, down-trodden, depressed, despised and neglected, ultimately succeeded in inoculating their proud conquerors with a new faith. Who knows the same thing is not going to happen again in the history of the world. India will inoculate the materialistic civilization of the West with her spirituality. Only let us preserve that spirituality and try to be worthy of that great mission. Having in view these great mission of our Church let us theists assembled at this conference from different parts of the country, resolve to devise means for the furtherance of these mission. In proportion to the difficulty of our mission there should be earnestness of conviction in us, and a desire for united work. Our numbers are few, but if those few act on the principle,-a long pull, a strong pull and a pull all together, our cause is sure to prevail. May God so order our proceedings that we may all depart from this gathering each strengthened in his resolve to do his battle manfully in his respective sphere.

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